Interview with “Spectacular Beasts” artist, Scott Greenwalt

by Admin on 05/02/2011

To celebrate our upcoming exhibition, Spectacular Beasts we begin a three-part interview series with the participating artists. This week, we interviewed artist Scott Greenwalt!

What kind of college or educational training did you attend/ undergo? Did or how did this help or otherwise affect your process?

I studied painting and sculpture at University of Central Missouri as an undergraduate.  It was not the most progressive school to say the least. I learned from my friends and the school library, which seemed to stop acquiring books around the 1960s. Instinctively, I wanted to move out west.  A friend of mine transferred to SFAI and I came out to see what was happening. Two years later, in 1997, I moved to Oakland to work on getting an MFA in painting at CCA. In Missouri I had been pretty underexposed to interesting contemporary art, other than what was printed in magazines, so I had a lot of catching up to do. Sometimes I would like to erase all of the ideas that anyone ever taught me, so that I could have a more pure approach, but all of that critical thinking led me to really develop ideas that were, hopefully, increasingly less juvenile.

You’re not from Bay Area– you attended school here and stayed. Any particular reason you’ve stayed? Is living and working in Oakland unique from other places you have worked? How so?

I stayed out here primarily for the people and the surrounding landscape. I think the general temperament here suits mine. I probably belong a little further away from urbanity, but I’m living in warehouse that was formerly a casket manufacturing company in West Oakland now and the space has helped my studio practice tremendously. The giant industrial buildings are beautiful to me and the overall weirdness of the neighborhood helps keep me inside working.

 Your work space is larger and includes a living space. How do you work in the studio? Is art-making for you a lengthy process?

I try to spend most of my time in the studio, whether I’m working on something or just organizing and thinking about the work. I often spend months on some of the larger paintings, slowly chipping away at the forms. I tend to work on several paintings over the course of time. I bounce around from idea to idea while I’m working on a group of paintings, probably due to my short attention span.  They all start out based on some image conjured up in my mind, and then new elements to the image unfold slowly over time.  I don’t think that I could plan these out entirely.

I’d like to know more about your residence and studio in Berlin, and if or how this experience has affected your work.

I was in Berlin about a month in the fall of 2009, staying in a painting studio of a friend of a friend. I didn’t bring any materials to work with other than some pens and pencils and some paper. The flat was stocked with tons of prepared canvases and traditional painting ephemera, none of which was mine to paint with, but I got fascinated with the idea of making environmental sculptures throughout the flat using all of the odds and ends that I unearthed in her studio. Basically, I wanted to use all of her stuff, without actually using it. It’s a more playful impulse than my painting. I had done similar work many years ago in another Oakland studio over the course of a few years. Half of my live/work space was a sprawling arrangement of tubes, wires, machines and inflated plastic forms interrelating.  I am working on a piece along these line with another artist that will be shown in June at As Is Exhibitions in Oakland, CA.

Anyway, back to Berlin. I spent a lot of time looking at Dieter Roth’s Gartenskulptur at Hamburger Banhoff while I was there. That work alone had a profound impact when examined in person. I had seen a few pictures and read about the work, but seeing it all together in one giant space dedicated to it’s presentation was overwhelming. I saw a lot of great art while I was there, but I don’t know if it had any direct impact on my work specifically, but my enthusiasm to work was totally reignited.

 What would you like to pursue in your art-making? If any, in which ways would you like to see your artwork change?

I want to see it get bigger and weirder. I want to keep exploring my ideas in more expansive formats and see what happens.

There’s a special kind of anatomical motif in your work: musculature, and nerves, but there’s also an organic, natural animalistic motif as well: climbing vines, twisted cobwebs, branches and spiders, antlers. How do you see those two coming together? Do you see any special kind of synthesis in these two that intrigues you?

I was fascinated with macabre subjects at a very young age, especially werewolf movies. There were several that came out in the early Eighties when a handful of brilliant special effects artists that were really pushing the envelope visually and technically, long before everything was done with CGI. I could go on and on about it, but to put it simply, I loved the transformation sequences; the moment when legs sprout out of a decapitated head or a face melts or a hand elongates, and so on. What I am portraying, in a way, is like a composite image of several stages of transformation. The organism rendered is more of a hybrid being composed of several organisms and phenomenon existing in the same space. Kind of like if plant, animal and mineral components were all thrown into a teleportation pod and came out on the other side as one big confused grotesque and simultaneously beautiful thing.

There seems to be a very painterly aspect of your work: the subject is well defined and deftly planned with almost a photographic stillness. Would this be a fair critique of your work? How much are your paintings planned?

Though my paintings spell themselves out over the course of a substantial passage of time, I have a vague idea of what I want them to look like when I begin. I like to move the paint around fast when I start to give the image energy, then start to reign it in as I move into the details. The details are always improvised, within certain pre-defined restraints.

Many works are titled with connotations of mutation: chrysalis, hatchings, births and shuttles. The titling also illustrates direct names of fantasy landscapes. Discuss how you title your work.

Titling work for me is just a way of putting the image within some vague framework for which it can be interpreted. Sometimes it is to put a dark comic spin on an otherwise foreboding or perhaps confusing image. There is no science to it. I just write down what makes sense. Sometimes I change the title of the paintings a few times. The paintings are important to me, the titles are basically irrelevant descriptors.