In February of 2019, a disagreement arose between two gallery-goers at the opening reception for “Duæl,” Zach Meisner’s first solo exhibition at the gallery MICKEY in Chicago. Both visitors trained their gaze on a small, untitled relief sculpture mounted to a relatively vast, white gallery wall.
One, an architect, felt certain that he beheld the effects of a trompe l’oeil illusion, that the artist had carved Styrofoam and painted it to look like wood. His partner contested that the material was what it claimed to be: solid wood, namely walnut, shellacked on one side and painted on the other.
They asked the artist to settle the matter. Which was it?
“It’s walnut,” Meisner tells me, on a recent visit to his East Austin home studio. “And it’s actually just the material exposed in a pretty clear way.”
Meisner is preparing for his second solo exhibition at MICKEY, set to take place in June and July of 2022. On his desk, I notice a newer sculptural object where a similar illusion takes place. This piece, also untitled, resembles Styrofoam treated with a surface layer of papier-mâché, as if to mimic the appearance of rock or iron with an accretion of rust. Again, Meisner reveals, I am looking at wood covered in acrylic and oil paint.
When I first approached Meisner with the intention of visiting his studio and writing an article about it, he demurred: “I don’t know that I’m the type of artist who has a lot to tell you.”
During our time together he did not attempt to provide a verbal interpretation of the finished works, nor did he acquiesce when I pressed him for clues as to how the shapes and colors in his sculptures might communicate metaphorically or recall other kinds of visual signs.
Meisner eschews verbal labels when talking about his work and avoids using language that explains away the nuances of its physical existence. He does not title any of his pieces. All of them are “Untitled” and unnumbered. Also, it is extremely difficult to refer to any one of his works by naming its color. Many of them involve layers of tinted translucent film that overlay contrastingly-hued surfaces.
“I’m also never comfortable with the images of the work,” he says. A photograph “doesn’t have most of the qualities that make the work what it is. Sometimes the camera will pick up things that aren’t what the eye reads.”
Meisner manipulates his materials in such a way that close observers will not only find themselves questioning what his works are made of, but why they feel themselves invested in that particular line of questioning. What makes a viewer feel certain, or care one way or the other, whether they are looking at foam, resin, wood, latex, metal, plaster, or wax? How do Meisner’s curio-sized, gem-toned objects make us see an illusion where there is none?
The precision of Meisner’s craftsmanship dissembles the labor he puts into constructing these objects. Where strokes of paint occur on a surface, they are anonymous, randomized, and all-over, not gestural nor calligraphic. Meisner hides most of the joinery that holds his wooden assemblages and structures together. And it is often challenging to see where, how, or even whether a layer of paint comes into physical contact with its wooden substrate.
“It is a weird tension — maybe it is my background as a snowboarder,” he says, “but I appreciate when things look effortless.”
Meisner grew up in New Mexico and Colorado, where, from as early the second grade he competed as a sponsored snowboarder. As a teenager in Taos, he picked up odd jobs in the studio of the renowned light-and-space artist Larry Bell, an experience he credits with sending him on his current trajectory using translucent materials. He attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for his BFA and earned his MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, where he now teaches.
Meisner will travel to Chicago in the summer to install the exhibition himself with help from the gallery’s director Mickey Pomfrey.
“At MICKEY, what I’ll do is start putting work out in the space, on the floor where I think maybe it would go. Luckily Mickey has a good eye, so I can hang some stuff, and get feedback, and move things around,” he says. It’s a very ‘clean, well-lit space,’ so everything pops, and you see everything super clearly. There’s a large space and a smaller space, so you have to figure out what’s holding the walls.”
In Meisner’s studio, abstract configurations of wood and acrylic take on a range of colors, surface textures, and edge quality. Though novel in combination, they engender familiarity. Yet my assumptions about the objects’ weight, facture, and behavior in space are contradicted. And I realize I had those assumptions in the first place