GP: I’m not sure if art (and I speak of visual art) has much of an impact on the non- art person these days. And yet the irony is that the art world is bigger than ever! I see the young more influenced by video games than art. But art is there for anyone who wants to look and people do have access to it, so I don’t think it is in the realm of the insider. Anyone can go to a gallery for free–that’s the beauty of the system right now! No one prevents the non-art person from looking at art. They may feel intimidated but maybe the education system or parents need to do a better job exposing them to the existence of contemporary art.
“Show me the manual on how to have a “career” in the art world.”
Gary Petersen, Green Light, 2011. Acrylic & oil on masonite panel, 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Amanda Church Interviews Gary Petersen
Amanda Church: You have been showing so much lately and your work seems more “realized” and identifiable than ever—in other words, you have totally come into your own. When did you first realize you wanted to be a painter?
Gary Petersen: That is a big question! I’ll try not to write my autobiography here and keep it somewhat short. Well, when I first realized I wanted to be a painter I was in my junior year at college. As you know, my major was Animal Science but I had been painting and drawing since I was little. In my Catholic grammar and high school we did not have art classes, so I never thought about pursuing art as a major. I was good at science and thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. It was not until the spring of my junior year at Penn State that I could take electives, so I took a studio drawing class. After that, art kept tugging at me. I graduated from college and moved back to NYC to figure out this art thing. I had started to move away from this notion of being a vet but was still unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. After 5 years of working in a research lab during the day and taking art classes at night, I decided it was time to make the full transition so I applied to and was accepted in SVA’s graduate program.
AC: How would you define your evolution? I remember when I first met you and you were making those tall shaped canvases.
GP: I think I’ll take my starting point with my 1992 “White Room” show at White Columns; Bill Arning was the director then. I had this idea of the canvas itself relating to the body of the viewer, so I started to stretch the canvas upward. It was shoulder-width wide and varied in height from 6′ to 10′. The imagery reflected my interest in the body, and the lines were curvy and soft. There was always this interest in line and boundaries but over the years I think there has been more depth and development to the work, which goes along with more experience in making a painting and in my personal life as well. Initially I was not as interested in layering and playing with space but over the past few years this has been developing in more depth.
AC: How do you perceive the significance of your (our) profession as painters?
GP: Well, I don’t like the word profession when it comes to being an artist. Semantics, I know, but I think it is misleading in a way. It conveys the idea that if we do things a certain way and train a certain way we will have a “job.” We will have a “profession.” Show me the manual about how you have a “career” in the art world.
GP: I’m not sure if art (and I speak of visual art) has much of an impact on the non- art person these days. And yet the irony is that the art world is bigger than ever! I see the young more influenced by video games than art. But art is there for anyone who wants to look and people do have access to it, so I don’t think it is in the realm of the insider. Anyone can go to a gallery for free–that’s the beauty of the system right now! No one prevents the non-art person from looking at art. They may feel intimidated but maybe the education system or parents need to do a better job exposing them to the existence of contemporary art. Artists certainly try hard, working in the communities where they live to bring art to the neighborhood, etc. Galleries are great in that they are run as businesses but are open to the public!
AC: How does your imagery evolve and how do you conceive it? And how does it, if in fact it does, reflect the world around you? What influences you?
GP: What influences me—well, life! Primarily nature, biology, architecture, and my personal life influence me. The ups and downs we all deal with in our lives, like parents aging and then dying. Sometimes you gain perspective on your work only after the fact. I often think the “ghosting,” the pentimenti, in some of my recent work, relates to the years I had to deal with my mother’s dementia before she died. But my work does not “abstract” from nature, it is just that all these things are in you and if you are in touch with these memories they do come out in the work.
AC: Your color sense is very jazzy and snappy—I love it! How do you make your choices? Are they intuitive or formal or some combination of the two? How about your compositions?
GP: They are intuitive. I start with a line, with certain ideas or feelings in my head, and work from there. Things start to happen and I think that process is reflected in the work. Humor and contradiction are all a part of it.
AC: Given that you came of age in the late ’80s, a time during which painting was generally considered to be “dead”, did you ever think twice about becoming a painter or consider any other forms of making art?
GP: I was in graduate school from ’85-’87. There was a lot of painting around then: Peter Halley, Terry Winters, Elizabeth Murray. It didn’t look dead to me. Painting always spoke to me so it always felt like the right thing for me, for my ideas. I often thought about doing sculpture, but only as a joke among friends. I’m just too lazy to do all that work!
AC: One last thing: your paintings are very animated—they seem to bend and twist space in fascinating, unexpected ways and also open up and probe hidden depths. Could your paintings be perceived as a reflection of a more private side of yourself?
GP: Yes, sure. I think that is true for most of us, showing a private side in our work. I guess when I am alone or with my wife, I do bend and twist in fascinating ways!
Amanda Church is a painter and is currently in a group show at Kate Werble Gallery. Closes August 2.