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Swimming strong: Eric Zener creates narrative paintings that float between introspection and escapism.

Artist Eric Zener paints what he values. And like his paintings, Zener is a thoughtful, contemplative soul traveling through his own process of self-discovery. He doesn't have all the answers, but he's very aware of the process.

His recent oils show subjects standing on hilltops, submerged in water and standing at the ocean's shore. They're introspective and show the interrelationships between the natural world and people. At the same time, they offer the viewer an emotional escape.

Zener watched his wife give birth to two children. He nearly drowned on the Rogue River in Oregon. He has watched friends and family battle illness. "Where do I put my energy? It shows up in my work," Zener said. "I paint these images as a cathartic relief for myself. And hopefully, the viewing of the paintings is cathartic for other people."

"My work is about psychological turning points and transformations and risk, taking that proverbial leap of faith, balanced with that quest for finding refuge, finding quietness and stillness and escapism," he said. "Some [paintings] are very, very introspective escapism. Some are just the joy, the pool full of people in this temporary oasis. The 10 minutes when you hit the water for the first time and the smell of sun tan lotion hits your nose. You really don't think about anything for those first few minutes."

Zener was born in Astoria, Ore., in 1966, but grew up in Encinitas, a small beach town just north of San Diego, Calif. "It's a little surf town," Zener said, "or it was until the invasion of suburbia and Targets."

He spent his first 17 years in Southern California, in what he describes as a "very '70s, touchy-feely environment." His grandmother was a painter. His Father was a psychologist and prior to moving down south, his mother played violin with the San Francisco Orchestra. "[At home] art wasn't something you did after your math homework," he said. "Art was appreciated and encouraged as much as everything else."

From an early age, Zener was influenced by classic masters like Picasso and Edward Hopper, "probably because those were the big art books my parents had laying around. You get those big, archetypal images in your mind. And I just evolved from there."

But first, there were the turkey paintings. "My parents would take my who-can-draw-the-best-turkey paintings to the local newspaper," he said. "Of course you don't recognize it when you're living in it, but my parents have always been supportive."

He didn't begin working as an artist immediately. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, he got a job as an assistant buyer with a major department store. It didn't work out. "I would have been fired if I hadn't quit," Zener said. "I didn't fit the mold."

He left his job and backpacked around the world for almost two years, visiting 25 countries including most of Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia, and parts of the Middle East, Africa and India. "I bartered my paintings for pensiones," he said.

In 1991, he moved to San Francisco, where he's been living and painting ever since.

Zener said "Contemporary Renaissance" is used to describe his art, although he doesn't like to label himself. "The narrative aspect of the paintings is so strong," he explained. "The style--it's a stretch--but it might feel like Botticelli. The figures are very large, very grand; I've heard people use that description as well."

Many of his recent oil paintings are devoted to water and people's interactions with water. In the summer of 2003, Zener lived on Spain's Costa Brava, and said he was intrigued by the masses of people bathing in the Mediterranean. He saw water as a great equalizer--regardless of social standing, age or culture, everyone enjoys the same pleasure and tranquility of the sea. His new works explore water's comforting, challenging and entertaining qualities. He paints a family of bathers in the water; two women somersaulting beneath the smooth surface; a swimmer heading into a rough sea; and divers perched on the end of diving boards, looking down in anticipation or maybe fear. His painted entitled, "Free," shows a young woman gliding beneath the surface, arms outstretched, back arched, head up. She's completely uninhibited.

Zener, who's in the process of archiving his paintings--about 600 to date--said he's noticing this theme of water in paintings he did 10 years ago. "Water was introduced slowly, gradually, and then it started gathering steam, year after year," he said. "Three or four years ago, it arrived like a train.

"When I speculate about what may have caused it, six years ago, my wife got pregnant. Our lives radically changed. We have two kids now, and being a parent is the greatest thing in the world. It's also a massive, psychological calibration. That kind of fear, that additional heaviness aside from the beautiful nature of it, the reality of what life is going to be like was all around us. Water provided such a great form of refuge, a great point of the changes that were forth coming. That quest for refuge and peace beneath the chaos of life."

Thirteen years after moving to San Francisco, Zener continues to paint professionally. His work has been exhibited at the Hespe Gallery in San Francisco since 1993. Hespe Gallery, Beverly Hill's Travis Hansson and Gallery Henoch in New York represent Zener's originals. His second solo exhibition at Gallery Henoch runs through April 3.

He has also exhibited in Australia, Japan and Spain, and his work has appeared in numerous publications and received several awards, including a three-month residency by the Spanish government to paint and exhibit in a castle-like home on the Mediterranean Sea. His works are included in numerous corporate, private and museum collections.

The artist also does portraits, works on paper and commissions. His wife, Julie Zener, represents his fine art.

Trillium Press, the company that publishes some of Zener's works on paper, has developed a new monotyping process that was created for Zener's new monoprints. Instead of painting on a metal plate, Zener and Trillium print six, faint Iris prints of an image before varnishing the paper.

"The paper is varnished so many times that it becomes the stiff plate, and buried in that plate is a real, faint, almost architectural blueprint of the painting," Zener explained. "Then I repaint the entire painting."

The upside, Zener said, is that he can always change the print.

"Sometimes I'll wish I had added another cloud there, or given her a different color bathing suit." This new process allows him to make such changes.

Meanwhile, Zener continues to paint water, although "my paintings are more random now," he said. Different themes seem to be emerging, although he doubts he will see the distinct pattern or theme for a while. "Maybe 10 years from now it will be like water has been," he said. "I'm dealing with three-dimensional people in a two-dimensional space. I'm using sparcer color. I have no idea where this is going to go."

For more information about Eric Zener, call (415) 246-3944, e-mail info@eric zener.com or visit www.ericzener.com.
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Title Annotation:Artist profile: Eric Zener
Author:Lyons, Jessica
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:1193
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