Interview with Grant Whipple, by Jennifer Palmer

Published: Vol. II, Issue II
Date of Interview: October 15th, 2016

I noticed you have lived in various places. Can you list some of the places you have lived?

I grew up in Chicago, went to college in Indiana where I swore off Indiana, but like a tornado, I later found myself back in southern Indiana as faculty at Indiana University. I almost lived in Monterrey, Mexico once when a week of helping a friend out there turned into more than a month. I spent some great years living on a sort of commune farm outside of Austin, Texas. I lived in Michigan where I did my graduate work and Baltimore where my partner did hers. I’ve also spent some time in Italy and recently landed in Santa Cruz, California.

Have your places of residences influenced your artwork? And if so, how?

I like to think that where I live and travel has had a profound impact on many aspects of my art making. I don’t fashion myself a landscape painter but always think of my work as being very embedded in the place I make it. For example, when I was living in Baltimore, my home was a couple of blocks from an elite university while my studio space was in a neighborhood of abandoned buildings. I found myself trying to work through these contrasts in my paintings, trying to give a sense of what it was like to move through so many shifts in just a few blocks. I started thinking about ways to do increasingly more mechanical approaches to painting such as airbrush and stenciling and seeing how those could be paired with more gestural and expressive paint application. My paintings featured cityscapes that ended abruptly at the end of sidewalk, neat lines of rowhouses against thick horizons of urban decay and contamination, figures from different walks of life passing each other in the street without seeing each other. Having moved about every three years for about the past 12 years, my work has also taken on themes of movement and disconnection.

 What colors are you drawn to and why?

Well, the middle names of my twins combine to form phthalocyan. I have a long history of obsession with this vivid blue color that really ignited when I swam in the bioluminescent bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Prior to that time I had been working primarily with historical pigments that became dull in mixtures. But swirling that electrical liquid blue light in my hands was the beginning of a search for greater chroma and transparency in my work. I did a whole monochromatic series of large paintings trying to capture that experience of illumination and phosphorescence. Other colors I return to are sap green, Indian yellow, quinacridone red, and flake white. Lately I’ve been interested in collecting more obscure single pigment colors to further explore new subtleties of color combination.

 What role does texture play in your work?

Five years ago, I might have said not much, but toward the end of my graduate work, and especially during my time in Baltimore, I became more interested in texture. In Baltimore, especially, it was a way to render tangible the roughness and beauty of the city. Increasingly, I’ve been trying to compose around texture as a design element. I’m more and more interested in making images that are highly responsive to shifting viewing positions. In a recent piece, I was using a syringe to apply a very thin line of red with a large amount of paint. On the other side of that line was a similarly applied blue line with the idea that as you view the image from left to right, the focus of the colors changes. One of my side projects has been trying to take 3D photographs of my paintings as a way to capture the experience of the image in the real. Through the internet and more digitally-based work, the lines between photography have become blurred, and I like to focus on the textural experience as a way to distinguish the presence of painting.

The Perils of Locomotion | Oil on Canvas | 10" x 8" | 2016

What is your workspace/studio like?

(Insert laughter). Santa Cruz, for all its natural beauty has a dark side: the real estate market. Having just moved here, I am still working out my practice in this new space, scoping out local artist studios and trying to figure out what I can afford. For now, my living room functions as my bedroom and office, freeing up our second bedroom for a studio space. I owe my partner big time. I’m always drawn to making bigger work, but sometimes the materiality of painting takes precedence, and a new life by the ocean means that the work has to fit the studio.

The artist’s workspace.

What is one item you could not work without in your studio?

I am a studio packrat, and as I’ve expanded my technical approaches to painting, the tools and junk continue accumulate. Having a studio without ventilation would be hard to work with. But I also never go painting without my palette knife.

Your artwork is filled with energy and movement and I was wondering does music play a part in your studio practice?  If so what would we find playing in your studio?

I’m always listening to something in the studio: music, podcasts, audiobooks. With music, I tend to go through phases of albums on repeat. A while back, I got stuck on the Mountain Goats. That guy has a lot of albums. Lately I’ve been relistening to Leonard Cohen and before that the Thermals. Right now, though, someone on YouTube has been uploading Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy at about the rate I’m able to devour it.

I noticed in your earlier work that you had more of a focus on the figure. What led you to the removal of the figurative imagery in your more recent work?

I married my best model. Ha! But seriously I’ve always considered myself a narrative figurative painter and have continued to make work that has figurative elements. At a certain point, it seemed more challenging to let the viewer be engulfed by the painting than the detachment of viewing a person not yourself in the painting. But I still find deep satisfaction in working with figures. I just started a painting the other night that I envision having a tangle of four figures wrapped into the landscape.

How has your practice changed over time?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how some artists’ work appears to focus on very subtle changes over a period of even say 10 or 15 years, for better or for worse. But I like to think that my work is in a much higher degree of flux. I have mostly kept an element of observational-based practice in my work over time, but sometimes it’s easier for me to understand how my work changes than what unites it or brings it together. On a daily basis I find myself drawn in both new conceptual and technical directions, and my work reflects those interests. One constant is filtering my ideas ultimately through the medium of paint and usually oil paint. The most noticeable change in my work over a large period of time would be that before grad school I was a strictly perceptual painter, and after grad school my work now makes space for inspiration from a much greater range of sources that change at rate of my curiosity.

What influences your artwork?

I feel like I’ve touched on this a bit, but some of my most recent influences outside of the field of painting itself include the relationship of technology and the handmade, and the theorization of the Anthropocene and what it means for art making. Timothy Morton’s class on the Romantic poets on iTunes U got me more interested in the philosophy of aesthetics and the relationship with current events. I have a sometimes unhealthy obsession with linear perspective, which is directly related to my interest in optical phenomenon more generally and light bouncing off surfaces. I think of myself as a sponge to many experiences, and as I try to make highly personal paintings, I often feel like I am wringing that sponge out onto the canvas, with all of its chaos and fleeting passion.

What project or projects are you currently working on?

The piece I mentioned earlier that I started on the other day is an abstracted landscape of a street by my house. I’m trying to capture the layering of space that I sense here in Santa Cruz, the quick rise in sea level from the ocean cliffs to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Cloud layers roll out over the bay and nestle around the hills in Monterey. The atmosphere is often heavy with mist. There is a palpable thickness to the landscape here that I want to bring to my work. The twisting conglomerate of four figures embedded in the scene I’m working out represent my family and the challenges of we face in the midst of such a breathtaking place. I’m sort of working out what this new place will mean to my work and hope that the canvas I’m playing with right now will become part of larger series that highlights the beauty and precariousness of living here. I don’t have a title yet, but it’s 36" x 48", acrylic on canvas.

What advice would you give to artists starting out?

My college roommate was really athletic, and he had what he called a CD going for running: consecutive days. He had run every single day for four years when I met him. Sometimes that meant running around a car in the garage on a snowy day to keep his CD going. The best thing beginning artists can do is establish a CD for art making and embrace the integration of daily living and studio practice. It needs to be a habit. And sometimes, you will have to be flexible. Every day doesn’t have to be a 4-hour session of uninterrupted painting. (Check out Gerhard Richter’s The Daily Practice of Painting). As I have alluded to, it’s rare for me to have a long uninterrupted stretch in the studio with my children so young right now, but I make sure to get in the studio every day. Some days, all I have time for is to look at my work and think through my next moves, and that’s still part of my process that I’m keeping alive with my CD.

If there was one thing you wanted people to know about your work what would it be?

Thank you, Jennifer. I really feel like I’ve had a good opportunity to talk through some of the more important aspects of my painting, and I enjoy being able to share these “behind-the-scenes” processes with an audience.