Some Questions, Some Answers

The figure is my anchor, but abstraction gives me the argument I need. Dancing between figurative and abstract painting, going back and forth, feels right. Gestural figures allow the viewer to quickly participate emotionally and get you through the front door. The figure stands sideways with feet pigeon-toed. The head and shoulders are tilted; the clavicle twisted. The gesture can suggest melancholy, confrontation, ecstasy, wonder—it supplies the road map.

I draw the figure to exemplify a language of the gray area and differences between solitude and loneliness. Oftentimes, that figure resonates as an echo of myself or a family member. With abstraction, the viewer is asked to participate without the signposts of recognizable imagery. The painting isn't complete until someone looks at it, then adds on layers of personal meaning and experience. A strong dark form at the top of a painting might be perceived as ominous. But the same gesture along the bottom can quiet the soul. "I don't know why I like it, but I do," is a lovely, honest sentiment. The viewer is tapping into the nonverbal part of themselves where love, fear and art reside.

The moments, memories, things, artists and writers that inspire me to paint have changed slowly, but certainly. Being absolutely shattered early on by the way Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira moved paint around gave me permission to stand on their shoulders. Then it was Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell and Joan Mitchell. Quiet and loud, demanding and comforting at the same time. From there, my own way of painting developed. Becoming a mannerist of yourself is dangerously easy and I was fortunate that my galleries encouraged my movement between the figure and abstraction. It allowed me to make mistakes and learn.

The scribblers, the scrapers, the clumpers, scratchers, drippers and meanderers are the people I look at and listen to the most. I'm drawn to the unfinished, unvarnished in art. Seasons, locations, music, politics and my mood direct me to dive into color arguments. An artist is a translator. You take an emotion and transform it into another medium. It gains something during the exchange—a note resonates or a color relationship happens and the viewer/listener assigns it some emotion: vibrant, brash, peaceful.

I look at painting like poetry and have been especially impacted by Poet Laureate Billy Collins. The observational poems in his collection Sailing Alone Around the Room can begin with irony or humor and end in grief or lyric transcendence. The title of my painting Howls Restrained by Decorum refers to a line from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." The poem allowed me to embrace the solitude of the studio that the Covid lockdown imposed on us. I love being with myself voluntarily but noticed the difference between that, and for the safety of the community, isolating ourselves. Walt Whitman's poem reminded me that we have a universe within us to explore. I got tears in my eyes every time I read the damn thing. I want the work to be tranquil or to feel slowed down, to have epic or claustrophobic space, or to refer to crayon mark. I paint more these days working off childhood memories. The school bus, swing sets, Aunt Jean's backyard, front porch lights and screen doors. Crayon marks on the kitchen wall and drawing waves. It reminds me that I need to get the sketchbook and start looking again.

Can I make a painting about stillness? The color contrasts I use are dynamic or benign. The figure either has movement or is quiet with internalized strength. I like mistakes. I like leaving in the ruins, the evidence of struggle and the underlying bones of earlier arguments. Too much a degree of finish doesn't interest me. I'm after a visceral tension in the drag of paint. Don't prissy it up.

Once physical contact with the paint and surface has started in earnest, once it's talking back to you, then trusting your sensibilities in regard to proportion and weight of line will take over. Contrast theory—thermal, tonal, saturation, complementary—moves the eye or slows it down, dictating the mood or emotion I'm looking for. With abstraction, I set up parameters or rules. I mix up colors with the intention of not altering them once they're on the canvas. I place a color then decide on its adjacent color. No fussing allowed. It's a way of testing myself, like tightroping without a net.

I want to leave the studio feeling unsettled, not quite sure of a color relationship or a big blank area or some marks and words I've put on the canvas. Almost without fail, the following morning, I'm glad I left the painting alone to be argued with fresh, older eyes. When you allow a mistake to stay, when something that would have bothered you five years ago becomes the element you're most pleased with in the work, you've grown.

Anaïs Nin said, "We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect." I think this comes closest to my reason for painting. Everything has some beauty and I get a second crack at it when I paint.

I still love large scale painting.
I still expect happy accidents.
I still learn from the most unexpected people.
I still can't wait to get to the studio.

Some things never change.

Gwaltney holds a BA and MA from the University of California State Fullerton. He has exhibited throughout the U.S., including Peter Blake Gallery (Laguna Beach, CA), Seager Gray Gallery and Robert Green Fine Arts (Mill Valley, CA), Cadogan Contemporary (London, England), Anne Loucks Gallery (Glencoe, IL), Julie Nester (Park City, UT), Tria Gallery (New York, NY), Kennedy Contemporary (Newport Beach) and Prior Gallery (Atlanta). His work has garnered an international following and resides in numerous public and private collections. Gwaltney lives in Laguna Beach, CA and Whitefish, MT with his wife of 44 years, Jill. They have two married, grown children and two perfect grandchildren.