Two Coats of Paint has had an eye on Bob Szantyr since discovering his compellingly quirky, absurd, anxiety-laden work several years ago during Bushwick Open Studios. This month, on the occasion of his first NYC solo, on view at Auxiliary Projects in Greenpoint through May 13, we invited Szantyr to have a conversation about his work with a fellow artist for publication. He enlisted multidisciplinary artist Valery Jung (정) Estabrook, one of the talented artists he met in the MFA Program at Brooklyn College.
Valery Jung (정) Estabrook : I have been watching you prep for this show through the lens of social media. Despite knowing that the show would be including an enormous number of works and seeing many images of the works that you were planning to include, I still had no idea of how you’d be able to fit everything in the space. I’m really just blown away by everything.
So where to begin? I suppose the first thing I would like to talk about is just the sheer volume of work that’s included. Because those artworks span multiple years, the show itself is a literal document of your own personal life and history. How did you go about editing the work and deciding how it would all come together?
Bob Szantyr: Before I jump into answering the questions, I just want to say that I’ve been wanting to have this conversation since I saw your solo show, “Hand Held” in 2018, also at Auxiliary Projects. I think that was when I started to conceive of this show.
I agree, the volume of work is a good place to start. I’ve never felt particularly adept at editing. I have a tendency toward collecting things and I struggle to let go. Not to say my studio is empty, but once we had agreed generally on the bodies of work that would be in the show (Jennifer Dalton, Jennifer McCoy had a vision and we were on the same page from the start), not a ton of cutting-down took place. Condensing a large number of drawings into the library display and having the resin work primarily installed within the wall frame dividing the space allowed them to sit more comfortably in about the same space one of the larger works would have needed. I hope the binder format for the drawing display alleviates any completionist tendencies for viewers and folks can flip through until something stands out. It’s less a show of big gestures than many small moments. I recall some similar experiences in your show here. Especially with “Five Twenty Two” (#1-25) – you had twenty-five single channel videos on individual displays in a five by five grid and I remember feeling as though each video I focused on, as small as that single display was, had the stature of the whole piece. It was remarkable.
VJE: I’m glad you had that feeling! At the time I had just previously finished works that were very physically large. For that show I really wanted to do something that could contain and carry more personal, intimate moments. It was shy work, stuff I wasn’t sure people wanted to hear, and unsure if it was ok to say. I think I get that feeling from many of your pieces too – works wherein their small scale lends to a one-on-one relationship with its viewer/owner/admirer, and thus has the ability to foster an experience that feels special and unique. As if the work is saying, hey I have something to tell, but come closer if you really want me to tell you.
While I had seen your drawings, paintings, and resin sculptures, I don’t know if I had seen you make much in wood before this. I think that might be my favorite aspect of this particular show: elements that allude to both architecture (forms that we exist within) and furniture (forms that we exist with). It’s such an elegant reference to the materials and structures that we have relationships with in our daily lives. And it’s really striking to see how different the other elements, like the pyramids and paintings, feel when they’re housed within one of these skeletal wall structures. Was that a direction that you always knew you wanted to go in?
BS: On the woodworking note – I’m so happy it’s resonating with you! With collection being a big part of the studio strategy, it made sense to me for display and storage to be part of the conversation. I use some carpentry and fabrication methods typically used for the construction of domestic spaces. Home for me is the essential, even mythic, place of collecting. I think this is something that’s been with me for a very long time. In the 90s, where I grew up, new houses were being built regularly around the neighborhood. I think the bare framing of a house is indelibly marked on me and naturally lends itself to the things I’m interested in with my work – ideas of inside vs. outside, boundaries and their permeability, and a visual language of collection and collected things. My undergraduate thesis work nearly a decade and a half ago involved a 1:1 replica of the 2×4 framing from the bedroom I grew up in. The 2×4 divider in this show is similar to a section of the west wall from that room. This framing is echoed in the Inhabited Frame sculptures on the walls. In those, oil on panel paintings are structurally built into the wooden frame. The other sculptures more resemble furnishings – tables, shelves, cabinets, lamps – occupied by collections of objects.
I wonder, back on the note of volume, if a show can be expected to be consumed comprehensively in any way. The come closer nature of the little moments that you mention I hope functions a little like a dragnet for the audience. There will be different things to snag different people, and I hope that more will unfold in the time that first catch-of-the-eye afforded the work. It might take a couple visits to really see it all in the finest detail. Has there ever been a show you’ve gone back to multiple times because it keeps unfolding?
VJE: There certainly have been shows that I’ve come back to a few times, as well as specific works that I encounter that keep me surprised each time I encounter them. Of course any kind of large scale museum or retrospective is impossible to digest in one visit. But outside of that, there are some shows that stand out in my mind. The first is Didier William’s show Pulse at James Fuentes Gallery (NYC, 2020). It was my first time seeing his work in person. They are breathtakingly beautiful and insanely detailed; I could easily have gone back many more times. His work speaks to the kinds of close human relationships that I think most of us can relate to, feelings that are too big to translate in a single image but still there’s an attempt to contain it.
Another show that I still think about is Statistics of Hope which was a collaboration between Ghost of a Dream (Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom) and Jennifer Dalton at 601Artspace (NYC, 2018). Did you get to see that? They had created their own mini casino with table games that presented a chance for the player to avoid some stark realities of life. That show makes me wonder about the phenomenon of hope in general – how can you elicit hope in times of despair, and why is it that even when things don’t change the feeling of hope can so easily come and go?
And then there was a great two person show by Alyssa McClenaghan and Debbi Kenote entitled Re-Union which was at Peep Space (Tarrytown, 2021). Those two are friends of ours, part of our Brooklyn College MFA cohort. They were strangers before living together during grad school. When I first met them, Debbi was working in sculpture, and Alyssa was making large low-relief sculptural wall coverings. Interestingly, they’ve flipped: Debbi has been working in painting, and Alyssa now creates free standing sculptures. I’m not sure how much they were in touch about their processes after leaving school and living in separate cities, but the mark they seemed to leave on each other is indelible. It was a very unique show, especially having been witness to their respective developments as artists.
BS: I can absolutely see why all three of those shows would have brought you back.Yes, I did get to the show at 601Artspace, and that show’s casino format naturally lends itself to the idea of the “replay value” of a show after its first viewing. I like the thought that one could go to a gallery, roll the proverbial dice a different way and have a different experience. That feels more alive to me than some air tight agreement between expectation and outcome. There’s inherent hope in seeking a different outcome from the same situation, and self-honesty that one is capable of having missed something.
I remember how Didier William’s work from that show was finely and densely marked with undulating layers of color making up figures and landscapes and skies. What you latch onto in the work recedes and you’re caught by something else entirely. Even the more medium sized works had so much optical depth my body shifted looking at them. In shows like these when a lot of detail comprises the bigger picture, It feels almost physical the way the tiny moments in the periphery can swell into focus, like it’s bigger on the inside. I think this happens in our familiar spaces with everyday objects too.
When you revisited Alyssa’s and Debbi’s work what kept unfolding? I think your personal connection is another layer all together too! Did you see things you’d missed as you watched their friendship over the years?
VJE: Absolutely, having gone through grad school with them, in the same class, allowed for many conversations and insights into their work and development as artists. I’m referring to the kind of insights you get when you run into someone at 1am in the studio and neither of you are anywhere close to leaving, but despite the time someone says, “hey do you have a second, can I show you something?”
Something I believe we’re all doing as artists is trying to create new languages. We start out by learning how artists before us speak. We mimic their phrases, the established vocabularies of our medium. But ultimately we can’t really say anything new until we find our own way of speaking, new ways to expand and build upon what we’ve been taught. We’re each doing this in our individual practices. What was really exciting about Debbi and Alyssa’s two person show, was that together they were adding a new language that neither of them completely use when they’re alone. It’s kind of like when you’re friends with twins or really close siblings: it’s not as is they’re the same person any means, but if you get them in the same room all of a sudden you start to notice little things about their mannerisms or their speech. Maybe there’s reference or an inside joke that goes over your head. Seeing their work together was like that: while I might know both of them individually, I was witnessing a new language being spoken that sounded familiar but still held some mystery to be discovered.
In my mind there are three categories of shows. The first two are what we most commonly see: a well curated and well presented show consisting of many works, or a show that is essentially a presentation of a single large work. And then there are shows of individual works that are presented in such a way that it almost becomes a single larger work on its own. I think what you’ve done falls into that third category. The only problem with creating something like this is that once the works are together in that space it feels almost a shame to break them up afterwards, because what the works say to each other are things that only will happen while they exist in that formation.
You mentioned past domestic spaces, past places that you’ve called home. The objects encased in your resin pyramids either allude to memories or are themselves actual mementos (as are the objects that help comprise your sculptures). Can you talk about memory and time? And what place does the future have within these works? There’s obviously a strong sense of longing and loss within the works, with the obvious references to 90’s kid culture, but I do feel there’s a hopeful aspect as well. And maybe threaded between the longing and the hope, a kind of self-soothing (self-deprecating?) sense of humor?
And then drawings like “Gouge Out My Fucking Eyes,” feel so brutally honest and sad, yet also leave me chuckling. I mean, it’s so precisely drawn, and drawn over three times! What’s the feeling going through your body or mind when you’re making works like this? Is there a kind of penance in the repetition? I end up smirking when I see them, do you have a similar reaction to them? Is there a point in making it, or after making it, wherein your own emotional relationship to the work changes?
BS: I hope my show taps into that object-depth and memory. The things we keep around make up a language that communicates our needs, affections, personal values, and aspirations. We steep in it every moment of every day — the layouts of our homes, our workplaces, our drawers and cabinets, our shelves all hold and align and punctuate our pens, spoons, books, tchotchkes, keepsakes, pills, towels and the innumerable bits of the innumerable moments. We know where to reach for a band-aid or an extension cord, we’ve turned the keys in our locks hundreds or thousands of times in a year, and we get to hold all of this in some combination of sentiment and muscle memory. As sculptures, these objects have to stand on their own and the audience may, once that idea recedes, be caught by the familiarity and project something on it that wasn’t there. If the work has any sense of a future, it’s that I hope they go out into the world. It seems obvious, but since collection is so much a part of the work, the idea that they’d be collected and live with and among new things and routines is really important also. What’s the opposite of Donald Judd? And maybe I’ve also prevented or postponed some sense of loss by using this object-language to commemorate more of life than the hallmark moments, be they happy or not. You’ve been candid about loss and grieving in your work, has that produced any unexpected connection with your audience?
VJE: Yes, I’ve had some vulnerable exchanges with individuals at shows, or after seeing my work. I think that my straightforwardness about the subject of death invites it. And that’s somewhat intentional, letting people know that I’m open to talking about it. Grieving can be such a lonely feeling. Especially in our death-denying culture where nobody wants to be downer. The only problem is that it’s when you’re down that you need other people the most. So you seek out people who know what you’re going through, in the hope that they won’t be turned off by your misery.
Honestly, a lot of my work since that solo show you sat for is made with the belief we’ve all got to be going through the same thing, just at different times and to varying degrees. I get a similar feeling from your drawings, the desire to connect. So it’s interesting that a practice resembling journaling (traditionally intended for no one’s eyes) produced work that is intended to go out into the world. It makes those text drawings feel almost like letters in a bottle, something that you’re not sure someone else will find but you make it and send it out into the void on the off chance that another soul might find it (and you).
BS: I’m so glad you get a laugh out of some of the drawings. There’s an almost dumbness to how honest I want those text drawings to be. The whole series of drawings happened from lockdown on through much of the 2020 election drama and subsequent years of generally less time in the studio and more time at home. I started these drawings as a way to continue to make myself do the thing when doing most things felt pointless in the shadow of seemingly ceaseless loss. We’re maybe getting to a point now, collectively, where we’re processing how we’ve all been changed by the past few years. Looking back through these drawings, I see all the increasingly absurd headlines and all the little comfort-seeking rabbit holes I went down, feeling lonely and sad and scared and lucky to be living some of life, even if through a screen. You ever have something on your mind and just wish someone would say it first so you would feel comfortable admitting it and then everyone could just have a laugh about it? Maybe after a while I started asking these drawings to do that.
VJE: I know what you mean. The feeling that arose these past few years was a kind of unchecked grief. I mean, previously I made work about losing just one person, and now in the span of a few months there are multiple people in my family, in my friends’ families, family friends that were dying. It was quite literally incomprehensible. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. And I’m not even talking about the trauma that we experienced in our communities, as a country, as a global population.
What’s funny is that we were all so eager to get back to “normal,” but normal for most people is staying busy and just getting by. Our culture of needing to be productive doesn’t really lend itself for quiet reflection and emotional self assessment. Just speaking to my own processing of the past three years, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I had described the experience of not knowing who to talk to about grief, unsure of who might be familiar with the feeling. And now everyone knows it! But we’re still just standing around, unsure if we’re allowed to openly address it. And so yeah, your drawings absolutely break that awkward silence. It’s not just funny, it’s a relief.
BS: Thank you, that is a relief to hear about the drawings, honestly. The interesting thing about that productive version of normal is that it really comes down to wishing for the means one used to have to meet their needs. One thought that kept coming back to me during the lockdown was how quickly everybody had to mobilize to differently meet their needs. Those who didn’t generally live with such vulnerability were the ones spouting “back to normal” this and “return to work” that. In some spaces a very real effort for creative new solutions, to build back better, to offer relief was happening. There was some work that was just so perfectly on point for the absurdity of these times, that while it leaned into the pain, it was a breath of fresh air to just acknowledge the moment.
Your Impeach Mint project readily comes to mind as a succinct form of that kind of acknowledgement – really, commemoration. I’ve luckily been able to collect many of these coins, and was doing so in real time as the events you commemorated were unfolding. I was caught off guard by how simply holding the coin shook something loose and I didn’t have to wait for the event to become canonized in history (and current legal proceedings), to have a less entrenched perspective on it. Truly a relief. As collectors items, the events they commemorate are ones that I’ve made drawings of as headlines or news screenshots. In the form of the commemorative coin, when I think about collection as an indication of how permeable we are, these objects are extra fraught. My assumption is likely they’re collected by folks who have negative thoughts on the acts commemorated. In my sculpture Table (Civic Center) sitting next to each other on the posterior edge of the table are the commemorative Princess Diana Beanie Baby, Princess the Bear, and a Dwight Eisenhower glass decanter bottle. They’re objects whose manufacturers’ expectations were likely that they’d be purchased in a sincere act of affection, which is part of the language throughout much of the work in this show, do you think the coins work opposite to that?
VJE: Ah, yet another overlap in our work, the marking of those events. To your question, do the coins in my series act counter to traditional “affectionate” commemorative items? Somewhat, yes. Certainly I think anyone who reacted positively to the project had to really detest Trump. But for people who really followed the project and collected it, it was less about hatred of a man and more about having to hear about story after story of corruption, witnessing a small group of people do major damage to our system of governing (imperfect as it may be) for the purpose of personal gain. I think most of the collectors of my coins were people who were trying to cope with not only events that they disagreed with politically or morally, bot moreover the sheer absurdity of how blatantly corrupt the administration was, and despite evidence, witnesses, admissions of guilt, and Trump allies being sentenced to prison, nothing seemed to really make a difference on the levels that mattered. For me, I kept thinking, how much more will we have to take?
As you mentioned the commemorative items in your work were intended to allow their possessor to hold onto an event, to savor a good feeling. Of course, as parts of an artwork, their context and meaning changes. They’re sitting on top of a table top that has actual legs, literally making up the top half of a body. The presentation feels vulnerable and exposed, so I believe they are objects that were collected, or received, with genuine affection. Just like the items encased in resin, they are personal belongings and so must be tied to memory and perhaps even a specific event. Standing atop Nike cutoff shorts, it feels more like a monument to naïveté. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia exactly, but maybe a wishing to be able to be nostalgic? There’s also a tiny box with a field and miniature billboards. Princess the Bear is sitting next to it with one paw in, almost like a child playing in a sandbox. For some reason it kind of reminds me of a kid playing alone, having just learned something new and difficult about the world – like the family guinea pig died, or from now on mom and dad are going to live in separate houses – and it’s gone back to playing quietly to try to self soothe while they process the information. Could you talk briefly about that piece?
BS: I like that a self-soothing narrative emerges for you. I recall moments like that from childhood in a defining way, when events and the way I reacted to them crystalized into some shape of a human. This sculpture is looking for an object or body language of assertion. The bottle and the bear are weird to me because they’re indicators of political ideologies, aestheticized to be collected in the home. I started using the model landscapes in these sculptures as a way to inject imagery into the object, a field to make sculptures within sculptures. The billboards in this piece read “putting it out there,” and the landscape is meant to look drier to give the appearance of the bear sitting by the sandbox. I’m happy you see it as a kid playing alone; I think of it as a direct nod to Mike Kelley’s Arenas and the way objects carry intent. I also think it’s about the work and aspiration inherent in play, and the images and models we have to go on when playing. I used the shorts to make the table stand there a bit more, with a casual stance, because stature seemed much a part of the rest of it. I think I do ask a lot of these sculptures, and I think there’s a lot of possibility outside of my personal memories for folks to connect to things that naturally have a bit of familiarity already. I’m really grateful to the folks at Auxiliary Projects. They saw all the threads among all the moments here and trusted me to make this show.
VJE: I’m grateful too that this work has a home, albeit temporary. But I suppose that’s just another theme to reflect upon when visiting the show: that it, like everything else, exists only for a brief moment in time.
“Bob Szantyr: Playing the Sounds of Yesterday, Today,” Auxiliary Projects, 212R Norman Ave Greenpoint Brooklyn, NY. Through May 13, 2023.
About the artists:
Bob Szantyr grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, earned his BFA from New York University, MFA from Brooklyn College, and he lives in Astoria, Queens. Bob is among the many artists involved with Project Art Distribution, a collaborative that curates curious pop-up shows around the city. “If Connecticut Spiritualism were a thing, Szantyr’s work would be a shrine to it.”
Valery Jung (정) Estabrook was born in Florida and grew up on an organic Asian pear farm in rural southwestern Virginia. She holds an MFA in Painting and Drawing from Brooklyn College and a BA in Visual Art from Brown University. Her artwork has been exhibited in cities both domestically and internationally, including New York, Los Angeles, Lagos, Bilbao, and Melbourne. In 2018 she received the Gold AHL-T&W Foundation Contemporary Visual Art Award,an annual award recognizing artists of Korean heritage in the United States. In 2020 she was a Vermont Studio Center Fellow and the Paula and Edwin Sidman Fellow at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities. She currently resides in Albuquerque where she teaches classes in Interdisciplinary Art at the University of New Mexico, and serves as the lab manager at UNM’s ARTSLab, a transdisciplinary research facility for emerging media.