Keith Schweitzer of ART(inter) in conversation with Brooklyn-based artist Frank Webster.
KS: You’ve been very busy this year. I saw that you recently had a show in Austria.
FW: Yes I had a show in Vienna this past spring with the Austrian painter Fabian Patzak at the Loft 8 Gallery in the newly renovated Brotfabrik Wien arts complex. Fabian and I met years ago at the Painting Space residency at PS 122 in the East Village. We found we had a lot of similar ideas about painting and it’s relationship to architecture and our environment. We began talking about doing a show together back then. So this show, Nature, has been in gestation since around 2008.
KS: It must be gratifying to see it up after so much time. I’ve seen some of the images of the show online, and your works compliment each other very nicely. Fabian’s work feels cooler and somewhat Hopper-like, while your recent sunburst paintings seem like an update of Turner. The show is almost musical in the pairing.
FW: Thank you. I really enjoy collaborating with other artists and love it when the sum is greater than the parts. It’s interesting that you mention music. A number of people in Vienna commented on the lyrical quality of the show and the musicality of the images. Maybe it’s just being in that city with such a rich music history.
KS: Speaking of these new paintings, I’ve noticed a shift in your work over the years from a more neo-precisionist style of painting towards something looser and more expressionistic. They seem to reference romanticism without being sentimental and are somewhat detached or photographic.
FW: These paintings reference the digital artifacts in amateur photography and the sort of images one sees on social media. I’m interested in the revolution we are watching in photography with the advent of new technology like the now ubiquitous iPhone. The subject matter of my paintings has also been shifting away from strictly architectural motifs towards playing with architecture’s integration with the surrounding landscape. My passion for this subject has always revolved around the environment, so this seems like a natural evolution for me and comes full circle to some of my earliest work.
KS: As an artist whose work is becoming more expressionistic, at least on the surface, Vienna must have been inspiring. This is the city of Egon Schiele, after all.
FW: Absolutely. I have never seen so much Schiele in one place in my life. Besides the hyper-charged erotica he produced, he also made a body of elegant and melancholy landscapes. These were definitely great for me to see in person. My real discovery though was Richard Gerstl—an early expressionist who committed suicide after being involved in a love triangle with the wife of Arnold Schoenburg the composer. He produced a body of work far ahead of its time in his short life. A bit obscure today, it was enlightening to see these paintings in the flesh. But older works such as those by the Danube School were also wonderful to experience firsthand. (I’m a bit of an art history buff, so the Kunsthistorisches Museum was heaven for me.) Hundertwasser of course was interesting from an environmental and alternative architecture perspective.
KS: Vienna isn’t the only place you’ve been recently. Congratulations on being awarded the NYFA Fellowship in Painting this year. You seemed to celebrate by taking a trip to Iceland, resulting in a new series of Icelandic watercolor landscapes.
FW: Thank you—the NYFA fellowship was very gratifying and humbling. I’m in the company of a lot of truly great artists. And yes, I’m very excited about this new series. These paintings are more unguardedly naturalist landscapes—the first in years. The far north is very interesting right now scientifically during this period of climate change, but I must admit to falling in love with the pure beauty of the place. Usually, before I start a new series of large-scale paintings, I’ll play with ideas in a group of works-on-paper. However this series does feel special, the subject matter really clicks with me, and I can’t wait to get started on the larger paintings. But the genesis of these works really was in Vienna. Fabian and I began playing around with watercolor there. He is a new father and was looking for a medium that would allow him to paint during the early months of his daughter’s infancy. So my first recent watercolors were made in the courtyard of his home.
Back to Iceland though, coming from a culture that is so obsessed with instant gratification and the here and now, it is really such a relief to visit a place where the vast expanse of geological time is completely apparent. Iceland is unusual in that it is both ancient and new—constantly in flux through volcanism, the shifting of the European and American tectonic plates, and now unfortunately the melting of vast, age-old glaciers.
KS: I’d like to get back to those larger paintings—as well as the series of sunburst paintings you have shown in Vienna. I saw a large triptych you just finished in your studio. Could you talk a bit about that piece and the series it is a part of?
FW: You mean the Sun Dog triptych? I became inspired while in a skyscraper in Midtown when a friend pointed out a sundog across the Hudson River. Sun dogs—also called parhelia—are caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere that create the optical illusion of three suns in the sky. I had never seen one before and began to research the phenomenon. This eventually led me to find out about the Väderolstavlan in Sweden—the so-called “sun dog painting”— a strange and mystical image of what was at that time an unexplained phenomenon of a parhelion complete with shimmering halos. In 16th century Sweden, this was seen as an omen of God’s impending vengeance. Today we see it as simply beautiful.
The triptych is the concluding painting of the series that is on view in Austria which I have been referring to as “the Ecstatic Eye”—thinking not only of the idea of ecstatic pleasure, but of the ancient Greek definition of “ecstasis” as it is used in philosophy—of being somehow outside of oneself. An “ecstatic eye” would be an eye that is literally disembodied. Perhaps a camera might fit this description?
Nature, with Frank Webster and Fabian Patzak is traveling to Salzburg, Austria where it will be exhibited at Galerie Trapp. The show opens on October 16th and runs until November 14th.
View more of Frank Webster’s works on his website: fwebster.com
Keith Schweitzer is a New York City based arts organizer, curator and producer. He is the Co-Founder/Director of The Lodge Gallery and Director of Public Art for Fourth Arts Block. You can find him on Twitter as @Keith5chweitzer.