"Gentle Surrender" by Eric Zener

In his new body of work—on show at Hespe Gallery through May 31—Marin-based painter Eric Zener addresses an entirely new subject: trees and bushes. The show includes mostly oil-on-canvas work, with only a few mixed-media pieces, the latter of which have dominated recent exhibitions. Known for his dreamy, intensely colorful, layered resin-and-paint images of underwater swimmers and water-focused work, which he’s been creating since 1998, this new direction is a total departure.

As with the earlier work, these pieces are photo-based. But while the hyper-real glossy mixed-media works (which actually begin with a photo transfer) demonstrate the depth and vibrancy Zener has excelled with in the past, it’s the paintings that steal the show. From afar they do maintain a photorealistic quality (indeed, digital images of the paintings may lead you to believe that they are actually photographs), but closer up, gestural brushstrokes reveal the medium; these are painterly works.

The subjects depicted are predominantly of trees with dense and messy branches, sometimes bare and in one case, on fire; up very close, the tangle of foliage verges on abstraction. These subjects could, in many cases, be dead, or just barely surviving a cold winter. The palette is equally as sparse; several works are done in black and white. When leaves and hue are present, the coloring is subtle enough to allow the frenetic composition to hold court. These works are a study in the beauty and intuitive order that can be found in nature’s chaos; they are immediately reminiscent of Lee Friendlander’s images of similar subjects, as from his “New Mexico” series, and have a similar affect on the viewer: they’re calming and mesmerizing.

Zener moves with this series from explorations of life to death—and, in the case of the fire painting, destruction. He moves from wet to dry, sooth to rough, bright to somber, glossy to matte, simple to complex. He’s removed the fluid figure and replaced it with a nature that’s impenetrable. These works are more difficult, and less inviting, and with them Zener hits a whole new stride.