Eric Zener and James Rieck Mine Escapism in “Lei-sure”

Leisure is a loaded word. It refers to the way we relax, but often, beneath the perceived happiness of these moments, there is a hidden complexity. The exhibition, “Lei-sure,” now on view at Joanne Artman Gallery, takes a close look at representations of leisure through the work of two artists, Eric Zener and James Rieck. While they tackle the subject differently, both shed light on the charged visual language of escapism.

For the photorealist painter Zener, water is a portal to an uninhibited youthful state. In his vibrant images of lone bikinied swimmers, leisure time becomes a sort of baptism or renewal. The intense blue-green of the water in these mixed-media works has an otherworldly luminosity, achieved by coating gold- and silver-leaf panels with resin. The aquatic surfaces are as tantalizing as the real thing, and the viewer is lured into the paintings as we follow his swimmers deeper into the abyss. In Zener’s aerial views of sun-kissed beaches, meanwhile, the sparkling sea seems to possess magical therapeutic powers. Both of these visions of the sea are steeped in associations with precious vacation time. Looking at them, it’s hard not to feel overcome by the desire to escape.

Working in a bright, contemporary pop art style, Rieck paints figures sourced from vintage clothing catalogues and advertisements. They look like billboards or glossy magazine spreads, aside from the fact that Rieck has cropped the upper part of his subjects’ faces so that we don’t see their eyes. These casually posed, glamorous models are all having a great time—we can see their smiles—but in this context, leisure time is clearly a manufactured fantasy. The mid-century, vintage style points to the creation of leisure and all its accoutrements as a product, in particular, of the postwar economic boom. Rieck’s titles, too, are idealized and catalogue-like, as in the case of Mixed Colorful Separates (2014) and Old Fashioned Sweetness (2011).

Rieck’s newest series, “Simulated Reception,” looks at the phenomenon of using photographs of televisions in advertisements. Because TV screens become blurry when photographed, new images have to be superimposed onto the contraption so that viewers can see what is being “broadcast.” In The Argosy (2015)—the title is, perhaps, a reference to the historic American pulp magazine—shows a perfectly rendered rainbow on a TV screen. Here, Rieck draws attention to lack of truth in images, even when the picture is crystal clear; and the harmfulness of such deceit, even during our seemingly innocuous leisure time.

Zener and Rieck’s paintings are at once commercialized and escapist, questioning the effects of idealized, aspirational imagery on lifestyle expectations.

Emily Singer


Lei-sure” is on view at Joanne Artman Gallery, Los Angeles, Nov. 1-Dec. 31, 2015.

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