When earlier this week Eric Vacheresse showed me around “Gate Keeper,” his new exhibit opening at the Vanderelli Room, he could have literally been walking in his grandfather’s footsteps, being that his grandfather grew up in a McDowell Street housing development that once existed where the Franklinton gallery now stands.
“It’s kind of surreal. It’s almost like I’ve gone full circle,” said Vacheresse, a resident of Franklinton like his grandfather and his great grandfather, who once lived in the apartment above what is now Rehab Tavern. “I’ve always felt a connection to this area, with my grandpa and seeing old photos of him. But I didn’t know he grew up on McDowell until I moved into 129 [Studios]. It felt like it was meant to be. And having one of my first solo shows here at the Vanderelli Room, right next to the lot he grew up on, it’s one of those cool things. It brings me closer to my family.”
The new exhibit, which opens today (Jan. 14) to coincide with Franklinton Friday, consists of two shows. The larger front half of the gallery is taken up by “Gate Keeper,” comprising paintings and sculptures done by Vacheresse, the oldest of which dates to 2019. The back half of the gallery is packed with 40 small drawings done in colored Sharpie marker by artist Sam Rietenbach, collected here under the name “Actual Size.”
The diversity in Vacheresse’s work is staggering, with earlier pieces favoring bold, black outlines and borrowing more stylistically from the street art he immersed himself in while getting started. Some of these pieces are more chaotic, such as “Life Goes On,” a colorful, collage-like work the artist painted at the height of the Black lives matter protests in the summer of 2020 and which reflects that instability. Later works, like a surrealist series covering the north wall of the gallery, project a contrasting sense of stillness, which the artist said crept in amid the COVID-driven shutdowns of the last couple of years.
“I live in 129, and we try to balance having it as an event space and a living space, so there was never really any time to sit down and make art,” Vacheresse said. “But once we couldn’t have people over, it allowed me to work in that space as an actual studio, and it gave me moments of solitude where I could really reflect instead of just constantly moving.”
The mental shift is immediately apparent in swinging one’s gaze from the gallery’s south wall, dominated by bold, street-art inspired works, to its north wall, populated by subtler pieces, many of which contain faceless, illuminated apparitions. “A lot of my work refers to passing over, or the afterlife, or that unknown,” said Vacheresse, an idea that surfaced with more frequency amid the daily COVID death counts. “It’s fascinating because we don’t understand it, and we can’t put it in a box and say, ‘This is how it is.’ And that stuff you can’t grasp is really great when you want to create something.”
“Actual Size,” in contrast, serves as a series of diary entries ripped from the daily life of Rietenbach, who said he completed each work in a relatively short time span as a means of capturing a particular moment, feeling or emotion before it could evaporate. Rietenbach completed one piece, for example, in the backseat of the car on a drive through Kansas, quickly inking in a train that he viewed rumbling across the flat landscape.
“It’s like therapy, and all of this is my diary,” Rietenbach said, gesturing at the dozens of small drawings hung on the walls. “I have and will forever make more than I will ever show. They pile up and I have them in envelopes and they’re always with me. It’s free-range. Sometimes it’s an experience or a place I’m at, or a trip I’m on. And sometimes it’s nightmares or weird fairy tales or stupid ideas. And sometimes it’s abstract puzzles, where I’m playing with shapes and color in a way that I have for a long time. … As a kid, I would draw these mazes and elaborate skate parks, and I remember thinking spatially, almost drawing these blueprints.”
Like Vacheresse, Rietenbach also has a background in graffiti, which he said helped him develop skills beneficial to these more small-scale works, namely the ability to maintain control of his marker while working under pressure and with a sense of immediacy.
“But this show in particular is really personal to me, more so than the paintings or the murals or the graffiti,” said Rietenbach, who added that a bulk of his bed sheets and clothes are stained with various shades of Sharpie, owing to his habit of falling asleep with a marker in his hand. “These, emotionally, are really a part of me. … It’s like, ‘Oh, that was Kansas, and we were going to my brother’s wedding and the train rolled through the landscape at the perfect time.’ … It’s a labor of love.”