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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Student Spotlight: Painter Isabella Zenkl ’23 aims to find order within chaos

Zenkl is an intern for the studio art department and a Class of 1960 Curatorial fellow.

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For the majority of their time as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth, Isabella Zenkl ’23 did not think they would major in studio art, they said. Despite having an interest in studio art prior to exploring the department, they said they had mostly avoided art classes at Dartmouth — out of the concern that they “would like it too much.” It was only after taking SART 15, “Drawing 1” in the spring of their junior year that they decided to declare a major in studio art. 

“I took Drawing 1 with [studio art professor] Enrico Riley, and after that, I was like, ‘Okay, well there’s no turning back,’” Zenkl said.

Zenkl said they had anticipated that they would major in cognitive science before discovering an interest in Latin American studies. They said they then pursued a Latin American studies major until they took Drawing 1.

Riley, who has taught Zenkl in several drawing and painting classes and remains in correspondence with them, said that Zenkl is “very much embedded in a life of making art.” He described Zenkl’s art as interested in their own “interior experiences.”

“When [you] prioritize a way of being or an activity, you begin to experience your life through that as opposed to occasionally visiting it,” Riley said. “I think [Zenkl is] interested in a very personal interior set of experiences that manifests itself stylistically in a variety of ways …[their] work tends to be very gestural, tends to be experimental and, I think, very sensitive.”

Zenkl is an intern for the studio art department, which gives them access to studio space in the Black Family Visual Arts Center in exchange for serving as a department teaching assistant, according to Zenkl. In addition to studio space and access to professors who can provide them with critiques, the internship provides Zenkl with an opportunity to continue building their portfolio. 

Zenkl added that they have found several mentors during their time as a studio art major and, later, as a department intern. In addition to Riley, they said they have developed close relationships with studio art professors Thomas Ferrara and Lucy Mink. 

“Something that’s been really good with the internship is that I feel like the dynamic between me and professors has really changed, especially professors that I’m [serving as a teaching assistant] for,” Zenkl said. “I feel like the dynamic is less professor-student and more artist to artist.”

Along with Molly Rouzie ’24, Zenkl is also a Class of 1960 Curatorial Award fellow. The fellowship involves co-curating new exhibitions of student artwork for the Black Family Visual Arts Center each term. In the winter, Zenkl and Rouzie co-curated the student exhibition “Maximalism,” according to Zenkl.

Zenkl said they work in a variety of mediums, including acrylic, oil on paper and canvas, gouache and watercolor — in addition to photography. Zenkl said their work began as representational and objective before eventually growing more abstract. Now, they are moving back to more observational drawing, using what they learned from abstraction to create art that uses figurative elements without becoming too concrete and objective. 

 In their artist statement, Zenkl describes themself as an “arranger,” creating order out of chaos. They said their work is centered on process and created through a sort of “ritual.” They added that they need to be in a “very specific mentality” to produce artwork.

“I play music really loudly,” they said. “It’s a very specific kind of music, so I usually play Machine Girl or Oneohtrix Point Never … and then I start dancing. … The painting is one of the actions that are happening during the process, but it’s not the only product of the whole thing that’s happening.”

Zenkl added that they strive to make their process visible in the final product by “going back to the process of dancing.” They said they look at the work from above, moving their hand across the whole surface and changing the orientation of the piece throughout the process. 

“I want the experience of looking at the painting to kind of mimic the experience of painting it,” Zenkl said.

Ferrara, who taught Zenkl in SART 72, “Painting 3,” said Zenkl became “much more bold and adventurous throughout the term.” He described Zenkl’s work as dense, energetic, expressionistic and linear. Zenkl added that Ferrara worked as a studio assistant for Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning — a prominent abstract expressionist — for several years, which inspired Zenkl’s interest in abstract expressionism.

“I feel like the painting that I was taught — or the tradition that I’m following in — is very much the result of abstract expressionism or more modern versions of abstract expressionism,” Zenkl said.

Zenkl said they are also inspired by British painter Cecily Brown’s ability to balance figurative and abstract elements — something that Zenkl said they emphasize in their own work.

“[Cecily Brown is] an expert at building things up figuratively and then breaking them down so that her paintings look really abstract, but there’s a huge figurative element to them,” Zenkl said. “Part of what I’m trying to do is build up a certain level of chaos at the beginning and then come up with ways where I can guide the viewer through that chaos so that their eyes are moving in a certain way through the painting, rather than just seeing it and feeling overwhelmed.”

After concluding their internship, Zenkl — who comes from a “food-oriented family” — said they plan to go to culinary school.

“Dartmouth isn’t an art school,” Zenkl said. “I compare my portfolio with the portfolios of people that went to art school, and they have so many [pieces]. If you spent four years just doing that, of course you’re going to have way more.”

Zenkl added that they expect to spend time developing their art independently before returning to formal art education. 

“[I hope to] get to the point where I think that I’ve progressed as much as I can progress outside of an academic setting by myself, and then when I feel stuck in my work, I’ll go to [graduate]  school [for the arts],” Zenkl said.