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Nathan Vernau: Reaching Out and Freaking Out
A-J Aronstein

I met with Nathan Vernau at Small Bar, an apt name for the neighborhood hangout roughly equidistant from our respective apartments on Chicago’s Northwest Side. It was a few days before the opening of his first solo show in the city, and he had just finished the exhibition’s centerpiece. Titled Everything Will Be Okay, it took thirty consecutive nights of focused labor to complete, and was the largest and most complex work he’d ever undertaken.

He looked exhausted.

When I stood in front of Everything Will Be Okay later that week, I understood why. Vernau’s electron-microscope-grade attention to detail has become a kind of trademark, and usually counts among the first thing that viewers will notice about his work. The twenty-four square-foot mixed media drawing is littered with scores of tiny and meticulously fashioned copies of the talismanic objects that appear throughout the exhibition. Envelopes, balloons, and cinderblocks pasted onto a neon background seem to fly in all directions. Light bulbs, attached by string to an unseen ceiling, swing about in taut circles. From the bottom of the picture, five contorted figures wearing unsettling rabbit masks and in various states of undress – more simply: five hairy-chested Nathan Vernaus – leap up from within an open crater waving blue blankets. Their flailing, almost violent gestures seem to set the entire piece into motion.

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Nathan Vernau, Framed, Graphite, color pencil, paper, and string on paper. Courtesy of Robert Bills Contemporary.

It’s difficult to appreciate in reproductions the tricks that Vernau’s intricate drawings play on the eye, and it’s impossible to convey the rawness of their emotive force. Everything Will Be Okay emanates nervous energy and its interwoven layers, textures and complex pencil work can induce physical sensations of vertigo. The objects appear scattered at random, but upon closer examination are so precisely rendered and delicately placed that it’s impossible to ignore the artist’s underlying control of the scene. In other words, though it can be difficult to focus on any single area (I literally felt my eyes vibrating as they moved around the drawing), the sense of patient and methodical labor always demands a part of our attention. Against the reassurance of the title, which hovers neatly written in a frame above the cloud of objects, the artist’s physical presence injects a frenetic and destabilizing force into the world of his work even as it orders the picture.

Situated in the center of the sixteen-work show, Everything Will Be Okay serves as a visual primer on Vernau’s formal acrobatics, as well as a forceful articulation of his central claim about the relationship between artist and artwork. It demands attention in a room full of striking images.

It comes down to this: everything is decidedly not okay in the world Vernau depicts. He seems ever conscious that the artist attempts to convey meaning using the unwieldy and ultimately inadequate tools of symbolic language. The repeated objects (other prominent examples include hearts, arrows, cowboy hats, and bunny slippers) represent the lexicon of images that an artist can use to represent his or her perspective on reality. Despite this vocabulary, the figures that populate Vernau’s works (always self-portraits) suffer from vertiginous swings between physical and emotional extremes. If the intensity of these emotions has a unifying origin, it has to do with the constant struggle to communicate even in the face of the impossibility of relaying one’s meaning.

This takes a pretty terrible toll on the body. Vernau portrays himself vomiting, crying out, laughing manically, and reaching to free himself from piles of flesh and objects. And no matter his efforts, the news isn’t ever good. Even when smiling in a work like Pleased, the swarm of hearts hovering above his head feels more ominous than comforting. Simply: Vernau’s self-portraits can’t get a grip. They’re freaking out with an urgency that leaps right off the wall.

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Nathan Vernau, Lett’er Tell Me, Color pencil, paper, tape, & ink on paper. Courtesy of Robert Bills Contemporary.

Vernau draws on his misadventures with online dating and relationships (this is what we ended up spending most of our time talking about over sliders and beers at Small Bar). But the results transcend categorization within a restricted set of experiences or emotions. These are not works about the vagaries of OK Cupid. For example, though Lett’er Tell Me is inspired by the process of sending email messages to potential online paramours – something an increasing number of us have a shudder-inducing familiarity with – this practice becomes a way into a broader comment about failed communication in general. Vernau draws himself rocking back and forth atop a pile of pink and red envelopes, as if waiting for an electronic reply from his virtual love interest. The process of reaching out to an online date stands in for the more general desire to connect via the imperfect medium of language.

In short, we’re always sending missives and agonizing over the possibility of getting a return. We try to tell our friends, family, and lovers how we feel, and want to have those feelings validated and returned to us in a way that we can understand. But the ideal of mutual comprehension remains beyond our grasp. Vernau literalizes this sentiment in Constant C-O-N-T-A-C-T, in which five figures with their backs to us reach out to strings that hang just above their grasp. Caught in the pose of worshippers, they are both paralyzed and constantly straining for thin and fraying strings. It’s impossible to say what these strings may be connected to, but the desire to grab them seems overwhelming. In this instance, Vernau’s work perhaps helps us think about how distant we remain to one another. By virtue of the isolation inherent in human mental life, we remain figuratively beyond each other’s contact; but in our dogged use of language, we are constantly trying to grasp each other anyway.

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Nathan Vernau, Constant C-O-N-T-A-C-T, Color pencil, paper, and string on paper. Courtesy of Robert Bills Contemporary.

At the same time, Vernau remains conscious of the nature of artistic process as performance, and of the artist’s identity as performer. It’s a testament to his tonal control that he can balance garish colors and kitschy objects with such difficult themes, without coming off as either heavy-handed or cartoonish. In works like Framed, he reminds us that the artist always has a knowing relationship with us, the viewers. The artist is essentially framed by the process of making art – always on display as much as the work. So Vernau wears his silly hats and his bunny slippers. He dives and twists his body for our enjoyment and our consumption. He wants to be understood. He wants to reach out. And he knows that, despite his efforts, he will remain unable to communicate his meaning.

But if his work tells us anything, it’s that he sure as hell is trying.