Interview: Chuck Webster at ZieherSmith, New York

by Sam Jablon

July 2012

Brooklyn-based painter Chuck Webster recently sat down with Artwrit to discuss his work exhibited at ZieherSmith gallery, a show simply titled Paintings. Webster’s new series of large paintings takes a personal risk, as the pieces step away from his previous work, which was similar in aesthetic but on a much smaller scale. Through shapes and color, Webster expands, stretches and explores the certain type of confidence that could be found on an effortless napkin drawing. His images hint at what might be a series of shipwrecks, and the bright, confident marks leave the viewer slightly disturbed, yet joyful.

SJ: Tell me about your choice to use geometric forms and colors.
Sorry to quibbIe, but I would not call the forms geometric, as they have no measurements and no metrics. They are more Paul Klee than Sol LeWitt. They are all freehand and loosey-goosey. I get a lot of the forms from the world—from an old piece of glass, a detail of Mantegna, the shape of a muffin or an old Roman helmet. They come from a huge store pile of things I see and make drawings of. Lately, I have been making drawings that remind me of Kachina dolls, old Mexican churches, pointy things and A.R. Penck. I use color by instinct. To try to obscure things, and to muck up paintings that seem too good to be real paintings. I want the sweetness of an apple and the darkness of a night rain to come through the color. I want to take you to a bonfire you went to in your childhood. Color makes a narrative atmosphere for the paintings and gives them oomph.

Do you see a relationship between the shapes and colors?
Yes. Each color is specific to each shape and its narrative. A cherry red color will make you think of pie and fire trucks. If a pie or fire truck color makes a clunky shape it will work well. A clunky All-American fire truck pie. I sift through these things as I paint—how the colors and shapes make me feel, and the places they take me.

Are your paintings about anything in particular?
My paintings are about the joy of making and how things can change one’s view of the world. How one can look into them and see so far in the distance and so far into themselves at the same time. I like the way children look at paintings. I once had a child look at my work and say that it looks like the view from inside the heart going out through the ribcage. My work is about knowing and not knowing, about being a civilized innocent.

How do you start a painting?
I start by making a bunch of marks with a brush or a china marker and looking at them. A decent amount of the time I have gotten the basic structures of a painting with the first starting squad of marks and shapes. Then it just takes a year or so of fiddling about and making it work. It will take a few major moves, and often sacrificing something to make a new thing.

I’ve noticed your new work has gotten larger, why the switch?
Since the last show was a lot of small things, I thought I might see how they act on such a large scale. The imagery has stemmed from a new series of drawings, and is somewhat of a return. In the past I have made a lot of work where I leave more evidence of marks, mostly on paper. The marks would freeze and create a sense of place and reality right away. I would work continuously on the drawings in succession and ideas would never have a chance to be second guessed. It was amazing. I wanted to do this on a larger scale and on a panel. Not to act so precious with the thing. To just make it. These new drawings seemed to flow, so I worked large and tried to change the process as little as possible. They are working out. It seems that a lot of great art is a perfectly arranged series of forces. The pressure, scale and mark of these are coming together nicely.

Does chaos play a role in your process or is it more structured?
Well, not really beyond the fact that I keep a lot of different kinds of material and tools around the studio for work, and I like to write things on the walls and use spray paint, crayons, oil bars and other ways of dealing with the surface. I am opening up my painting process to be closer to my drawing process. I like to gather a large array of materials, keep them in a certain order when I start and then see what happens. That being said, I clean the studio constantly: sweep, putter around, sort paint tubes. That helps the painting. My mind can open up to a new move on a certain picture as I clean. It’s good to keep things kind of open.

Are you noticing a difference in your painting process since you opened it up to your drawing practice?
I think that the paintings I was making over the past five years were in some ways accumulations of marks and moves—a term which may encompass many individual marks—and sanding down and leaving things alone, taking things away. I wanted to let some of the marks speak for themselves, and that is in some ways more confident.

I think that I wanted to translate the confidence and comfort I feel in a small piece of paper to a large panel. To be aware of that scale and surface in the same way I can just let the ideas flow on a small scrap. To let the ease of marks happen. Using spray paint and oil bars helps to do that. I have been thinking about paintings that involve more mark making and leaving, like Dana Schutz and Alex Katz, late Titian and Manet. Where things are just left. I wanted to bring out some of the material qualities of color and my own hands.

Chuck Webster: Paintings
26 April–25 May, 2012
New York