Zuriel Waters was born in 1984 in Philadelphia, PA, and lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has shown his work at Safe Gallery, Regina Rex, Bannerette, Eddy's Room and other artist run spaces in NYC. He received a BA in Painting from San Diego State University and MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2010.
Interview with Zuriel Waters
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Zuriel! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I always drew and my parents encouraged it. My dad is a musician/composer and so he was always very supportive of creativity. I think at first I wanted to be a writer in elementary school, then art and music. I went to college originally for saxophone performance but then switched to painting in my junior year.
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making an artwork of your choice, in terms of the evolution of the idea to the finished piece?
Well, I have a number of pieces going at a time in my studio but gradually one takes over and becomes the central focus of my attention. The others then start to become almost like supporting devices for the main piece while I pour energy and consternation into it. Some of the decisions on the other paintings will get taken in by the dominant piece and also begin to take on it's palette because of all of the extra paint which then sets the groundwork for the next piece. It's almost linear, I have a hard time actually finishing pieces simultaneously.
Your recent paintings are oil on hemp. Can you tell us a bit about what makes up the hemp as a surface? Is it similar to burlap?
Yea, it basically feels like a finer, denser burlap. I started using it because I have gradually been building up my surfaces with more and more paint and I thought maybe I could save myself a few paint layers by beginning with a coarser support, of course I have no idea if this is true haha. My paintings still take a long time and I'll cycle through many different image layers before it finally comes into focus. But I like the hemp also because it doesn't shrink as much on the support and also gets less baggy, it is less stretchy of course but for my shaped pieces I don't want a lot of torque on them when I am priming them or they could warp.
Can you tell us more about your choice of materials and what draws you to working in oil?
I painted in acrylic for along time using a combination of guerra pigments/mediums and flashe vinyl paint, but I started to really hate all the containers and having to mix large batches of color that stick around forever. I also began to get really interested in mixing color and it is much easier to think about color mixing when you have more time with the paint before it starts setting. For me it is also a lot easier to control the physical properties of the paint because it is so straightforward as to what oil paint "is". Which is to say that it is basically just two ingredients, oil and pigment, and you can make the paint as dry or loose as you want by adding more pigment/chalk to it or oil/thinner. I find heavy body acrylics to be kind of fluffy and never stiff enough for me. Also I think that the acrylic medium is kind of ugly and I found myself constantly fighting the deadness of it.
You have a series of paintings titled “Painter”. Can you tall us more about that series?
So that series started with a funny idea that painting is either like a sentient being that can see you or like a mirror and I wanted to paint as if the painting was like a very long exposure photograph. I thought 'how would a painting see' and so I ended up reducing the images to be more rectilinear like modernist painting. So the foreground would depict me painting in a space and the frontal plane would be like the 4th wall with the paint strokes on it. Like If you were to paint on a mirror you would see the flat paint on the surface and the scene behind it. It was a kind of a cheeky way to deal with the different and contradictory types of space that need to exist in a painting for you to be able to enter into it as a viewer.
A portion of your recent paintings are on shaped supports. When did you begin working on variously shaped surfaces? What was the impetus for this direction?
I think it must have started when Elizabeth Murray visited my undergrad SDSU probably around 2006. I was painting sort of realist paintings at the time and I remember being pretty challenged by her. I had no context for the work and I kept thinking her work looked like spongebob squarepants and I even said that during the questions section of her lecture, and she was like, not really bothered by it but it was so incidental to her. I was intrigued by how she could have this whole language that she had developed completely alongside mainstream culture, like parallel to it and that her investment in that language could be so monumental. It wasn't too long after that I just started drawing very freely and making shaped figures with no backgrounds. I made that work for a few years then went to grad school and stopped for some reason, probably because I felt intimidated and naive and didn't want to make goofy loud work for a while. But I always thought I would come back to it. I love how they become like sculpture, and of course it is a huge relief not having to deal with figure/ground for a moment haha. Although they do get pretty tough because I am stuck with the initial shape until the bitter end. Everything has its challenges!
What is a typical day like for you?
Well if I have a day off then I'll just wake up, have coffee, poop and then start working. My partner, the amazing painter Jennifer J. Lee, and I both have studios in our apartment so it makes it pretty easy. Sometimes I like to journal while I'm pooping. I also play music though so I usually try to find time to practice singing and playing saxophone. Some days this is only 45 mins or so but other days it can be as much as 4 hours. It ebbs and flows, when I have more music stuff going on I tend to practice more and paint less, but still both every day.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?I guess I have been mostly interested in historical work lately. I grew up really loving and being inspired by Picasso but haven't thought about that work for awhile. I love late Monet but before he gets all Ab-Ex. Those large water lily cycles at l'orangerie are so amazing. They have two at MOMA that are great although they have all this ugly varnish on them that makes it hard to see the layering in the paint. I love Giacometti paintings with their insane, dense centers. Some Hans Hoffman, they had an amazing grouping on display at the Met a few years ago with such vibrant color and tough surfaces I couldn't believe how good they were. I have been really inspired by Mondrian lately, I love the idea that his paintings follow this very didactic reduction of nature into the very square vision of the painting space. His paintings also have a really worked on quality that I was surprised by when I first started really looking; they are actually push-pull but look at first like design. Milton Avery… Of course I love contemporary artists too, Nicole Eiesenman and Amy Sillman are like two glowing orbs I am constantly orbiting. I really liked Guy Goodwin’s show recently. It's hard to say, there’s so much.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done?
I don't know really, just time and sleep, lots and lots of time and sleep.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Depression, but it is necessary sometimes too. In order to make big changes I have to really hate what I'm working on but I can also get blinded by the sensation of self-loathing and lose my focus. I think meditation helps with this…and getting enough sleep too.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I have been listening to Lester Young playing "She's Funny That Way" played at half speed almost on repeat for about a month. I listen to other stuff too in between but mostly that one song. It is an amazing solo. It is really incredible how connected to the melody of the original song he stays while completely reinventing it at the same time. You get the sensation that you are listening to "the song", like his playing is so melded with the melody that you can't distinguish when he's not playing it. He also plays with these really unexpected dreamy intervals within his swinging lines that are kind of mind blowing. After listening to it at half speed when I turn the original on I can't believe how smooth it is. Back then it was all single takes too, they couldn't splice anything together, no mistakes and with such a feeling of inevitability.
Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
Well, I think having two working walls is important. Good lighting, which I don't have because our ceiling are too low. I have an ikea cart with a palette on top and my paints in the tray below, and I have gradually over time figured out which ones I need so it is kind of orderly. I really don't like disorder in terms of where the paint tubes are. I recently made a paint-scrape box which has been amazing! You just need some kind of delivery box like from Amazon or Blick, and cut the top flaps off and trim other pieces of cardboard to fit tight width-wise but maybe 2 inches short the other way. You cut like 5 of these pieces and shove them in the box and it makes a little reservoir that you can scrape paint into with one hand and also clean off your palette knife on the flat part. It's great.
How do you navigate distraction or lack of motivation while working?
I guess I just work through it. Painting is pain-full.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Just a few, there is "Actually Weird" a group show at Underdonk curated by JJ Manford on Jan. 5. Then on Jan. 22 there is "FFFFFFiguration" at Nevven Gallery in Göteborg, Sweden curated by Jon Chapline. I will also be having a show at Catbox which is a mini gallery in Philip Hinge's cat tree in May.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Zuriel and his work, check out his website.