Ken Weathersby: Right now there’s something I’m calling ZTE—zombie tableau ensemble. It’s from an image that appeared in my head a couple of months ago: a group of paintings, a specific tableau. I saw this arrangement of paintings hanging on the wall and some that were freestanding. They seemed to come toward me across the room. Individually, they resembled paintings I’d already been making: structural, stacked wooden grids overlaid with bits of linen, patches of grid-patterned paint films—the parts of painting all present, but also dismantled, separated.
“Responding to the conditions of painting gives me a context, something to mess with.”
Ken Weathersby, 191 (csk), 2011. Acrylic & graphite on linen, wood, nails, 33 x 26 in. Courtesy of the artist.
John O’Connor: Can you talk about the new piece you are working on?
Ken Weathersby: Right now there’s something I’m calling ZTE—zombie tableau ensemble. It’s from an image that appeared in my head a couple of months ago: a group of paintings, a specific tableau. I saw this arrangement of paintings hanging on the wall and some that were freestanding. They seemed to come toward me across the room. Individually, they resembled paintings I’d already been making: structural, stacked wooden grids overlaid with bits of linen, patches of grid-patterned paint films—the parts of painting all present, but also dismantled, separated. My first association after drawing this image was the shot that’s in every zombie movie, like in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, where there’s a crowd of zombies slowly staggering toward you, facing you with glazed eyes, decayed bodies with rags of clothing hanging off…
JO: So, some are going to be free-standing. Do you still call them paintings?
KW: Yeah, they’re paintings. Sometimes people want to know whether it’s becoming sculpture: the answer is no. It’s important to me that they remain paintings. Responding to the conditions of painting gives me a context, something to mess with.
JO: What are those conditions, for you?
KW: I mean the given, physical terms of painting, like paint, linen, wood, but in my own way of understanding what they could be. For example, simple patterns fulfill my requirements for painted image. In my paintings those various given terms tend to get outside their usual roles, to do different things. Sometimes the linen support and the painted front switch places. Sometimes the wood gets itself in between the paint and the linen. Paintings seem to be undoing something about how they would normally work. The undoing can be a blunt confrontation or an almost invisible cut or substitution.
Ken Weathersby, 185 (ddrv), 2011. Acrylic & graphite on linen, reversed, with unreversed areas, 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.
JO: But back to the patterns you’re using to stand in for an image: they do more than just that. They shimmer; they change when you look at them from different distances…
KW: Well, the optical effects suggest spatial illusion or movement, but without depicting anything. And because the scale of the patterns is tiny, there’s a sense of compression. The strongly contrasting colors that you see from close to the surface cancel each other out from a distance and can begin to turn gray from across the room.
JO: What’s been the effect of making miniatures for your shows? Do you see them now as works on their own? I’m thinking of the ones you recently showed in California.
KW: I started making very small pieces a few years ago, as a way of thinking through paintings and to see what they might look like before making them on a larger scale. I also made a tiny scale model of the gallery at Pierogi before my show there in 2010. So it started as just a pragmatic process. But the feeling of seeing things reduced very small or, when next to full-sized pieces, seeing the huge leap in scale, became interesting, trippy, like Alice in Wonderland—it becomes uncanny and gets the imagination going. I showed 22 very small works, most just two or three inches tall, at Some Walls, a curatorial project in Oakland, in 2011. So that moved the small paintings into the realm of “works in their own right.” I’m now creating new groups of small paintings around the ZTE idea. The miniature version has additional interest for me in this case, since to establish the “tableau” feel, I’m positioning them inside little room-like boxes that I also make. The box itself is something I think of as a kind of folded-up painting. This lets me think about more physical conditions of painting that join the list of given elements (like linen, wood, paint) that I’m already using. The tableau allows me to bring in these other terms: the walls, the floor, the actual space between and around the paintings. In these newer works, I’m bringing those things inside of painting in a way.
JO: I find your paintings very human: they do things we do. They show a particular side or face, hide things, reveal their personalities over time. Do you think about these relationships?
KW: There is an anthropomorphic element that I can’t deny. One thing that started me on doing this kind of work was another dream or daydream I had about ten years ago. I saw, in my mind, a painting come out from the wall and then slowly turn away, turning its face to the wall, refusing to be seen. It was a gesture on the part of the painting, suggesting that the thing had a life and a will. Yet I don’t look for that kind of life in the work too much. If it’s there it emerges on its own. What I feel I’m after, when I’m making the work, is playing out certain situations. Ideas about situations come to me: a painting with two backs and no front, or one with a cut-out area in the paint surface, through which we see another layer identical to what has been removed, or a painting overtaken by a wooden lattice, to the point that it’s almost obscured. I’m inundated with these kinds of thoughts. I’m not thinking about these things in psychological terms. But somehow the paintings themselves do these things that might have human parallels.