An Interview with Artist Gail Gregg

July, 2006

A Midwesterner by birth, Gail Gregg has lived and worked in New York City for 25 years. She received undergraduate and masters degrees in journalism before reschooling herself as an artist at the School of Visual Arts, National Academy of Fine Arts, NYC; the Graduate School of Figurative Art, New York Academy of Art, NYC; and the Vermont College MFA program, Montpelier, VT. Painted in encaustic, a wax and pigment medium, her densely layered pictures often are inspired by aerial views of the American West and refer to Minimalism, Color Field painting, the Pattern and Decoration movement, and classic landscape painting. These same ideas and interests also find their way into her collages and photographs. Gregg continues to write for such publications as ARTnews. Her work has been exhibited at galleries and small museums across the country. Her most recent work is on view from Sept. 1–Oct. 1, 2006 at Silvermine Arts Guild Gallery in New Canaan, CT.

Julie Karabenick: You’ve told me that one of your strategies in the studio is to listen to books on tape while you work.

Gail Gregg: By the time I begin my paintings, I’ve been working on them for a long time—thinking through the ideas, figuring out how to translate those ideas into images. Listening to books once I begin a painting helps occupy that pesky left brain and allows me to focus on the process itself. I can get overly fussy when I’m not lost in a book; I need to let my eyes, hands and body do their work without interference. Over the years, I’ve interviewed many artists who rely on similar tricks—listening to NPR all day or to the sound of the tv.

Kincaid, encaustic on panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2003

JK: And you do have highly developed verbal skills, having received degrees in both journalism and art.

GG: Even as a child, there were two Gail Greggs—one who loved solitude and the pleasure of using her hands and eyes. The other was a more plugged-in child, curious about the world around her. This Gail Gregg took a degree in journalism, though her consoeur was alive and well in the form of her interest in photography and design.

Tow, encaustic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1998

JK: So your art education came after you were already working as a journalist.

GG: Gail Gregg II got her turn in 1982 by enrolling in art school. For several years, the two of them co-existed—attending art school each morning, reporting and writing each afternoon. In the mid-1980s, Gail Gregg I took semi-retirement, writing only occasionally for ARTnews on subjects relating to art. I’ve been very lucky to have interviewed some of the most interesting artists of our day and to have had occasion to think about the art system we operate in.

JK: Although some of your early work is representational, it appears that you were always moving toward abstraction.

GG: To all those laymen who think making abstraction is easy, I say, “I wish.” I feel that I have eyes that see abstractly, and long have responded to abstract work in a very intuitive and even emotional way. But making it was a different question. It took years to let go of the representational and embrace abstraction fully.

In art school in my early 30s, I became fascinated by the human form, spending years in life drawing classes where the challenge I set for myself was to distill all the visual information that resides in a human form and translate it into movement or form or emotion.

When I look back through my work, I see a steady progression towards abstraction. Bermuda Moon and Right Light are early indicators of that.

Red Light
Red Light, oil on wood, 36 x 39 cm (14 x 15 ½ in), 1991

For several years, I also made paintings of the suburbs at night—harkening back to my own childhood and the magic/sublime of dusk. They, too, were on their way to abstraction, consisting of silhouettes and blocks of light.

JK: You grew up in Kansas. Did the nature of the landscape there—the vast open plains—influence your sensibilities toward abstraction?

GG: Growing up on the Great Plains has most definitely affected the way I experience the world, the way I make art. Even as a child, I experienced the visual world by simplifying and abstracting it—not that I would have been able to articulate this at the time.

I made heavy use of the silhouette as a young artist. Using negative space was a means to the end of simplification and synthesis; by drawing with negative space, an artist by definition focuses on form rather than detail, on composition rather than depiction.

I consider my first “real” painting—that picture which was born of me rather than of art school concerns—to be a painting of light coming through the branches of a tree. The tree branch and tree shadow paintings were ways for me to organize space in a more abstract way, to think about negative space instead of representing the thing itself.

Untitled, oil on wood, 30 x 91 cm (12 x 36 in), 1991

On a relatively recent visit to my parents, it struck me for the first time that trees in Kansas are seen as silhouettes rather than in groves, in woods, as they often are in the east. Nature is simplified, iconic. And then there’s that matter of that big, big sky—that very straight horizon line, those simple planes of color. There’s no doubt but that my eyes were formed by the highly simplified landscape of my youth, and that I seek a kind of visual solace in such simplification.

JK: And it was during a flight over the Midwest that you experienced an “aha” moment—a moment that was to really bring your art back to the landscape of your childhood and accelerate your move to abstraction.

GG: Gazing out an airplane window on a trip across the country, I truly did have an “aha” moment. It was 30,000 feet of aerial distance that allowed me to understand certain physical truths about my native landscape. I ripped a pen from my bag and starting drawing the patterns spread out below me—aerial views of the manmade divisions superimposed on the vastness of the wilderness west of the Mississippi.

Walloola, encaustic on panel, 30 x 61 cm (12 x 24 in), 1997

I discovered a goldmine of visual information—an infinite number of marks and shapes that could be combined and recombined in an infinite number of ways. I could explore the centers of patterns, the edges of patterns, the absence of pattern, combinations of pattern, the way color changes pattern. It was an exhilarating discovering, and it also was liberating. Ok, I thought, now subject matter is taken care of, and I can turn my attention to painting.

Red Dots
Red Dots, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 1998

Finding the aerial landscape provided a way to make abstract pictures about a subject that had much meaning to me and a way that made full use of encaustic, the new medium I was exploring. I felt I was making actual pieces of turf as I built up countless layers of color, scraping back in and using my fingers to create an irregular shape.

Index, encaustic on wood, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 1997

JK: What had drawn you to encaustic?

GG: In the 90s, I was struggling to make oil paint work as a glazing medium that would allow me to build up layers of color to recreate light. What I discovered about encaustic was not only did it allow me to work and think about color in a new way, it had physical properties that suited me exactly. I love the smell of the wax, working horizontally over a table, using my hands, fingers, my whole body. There is no real tradition of encaustic painting, so those of us who use the medium make it up for ourselves. We use tools from hardware stores, baking supplies or kitchen departments. It’s messy, difficult, frustrating—and really pleasurable. And perhaps the fact that there is no large-scale tradition of encaustic painting is liberating; we don’t have to compare ourselves to Leonardo or Monet.

JK: And the irregularities that seem to occur so naturally with encaustic provide some relief from the more severe geometry of the manmade landscape?

GG: Yes. Working in encaustic results in a kind of “handmade” abstraction—and allows me to endow the unforgiving grid with a kind of tenderness. Encaustic resists perfection; it’s the ultimate process medium, one that continues to surprise the maker every step of the way. It’s very demanding, yet forgiving. Anything can be undone by reheating and scraping away. And unlike oil, which can grow muddy and overworked with too many layers, encaustic typically just becomes more beautiful.

Tiger, encaustic on paper, 56 x 56 cm (22 x 22 in), 1999

JK: Your work is often of an intimate scale. Does this reflect an aesthetic preference or the nature of encaustic—or perhaps both?

GG: Both. I haven’t yet discovered a way to work large with encaustic except through the “serial” method of creating diptychs or triptychs. More important, though, is my innate preference for intimate work. I’ve often wondered whether the cinema was responsible for the switch in the mid-20th century to the in-your-face scale, which asks a viewer to step back from a work in order to experience it. I find Morandi or Vuillard utterly marvelous: though their pictures are small, the emotional spaces they create are vast. You literally enter those spaces in the act of standing close, in experiencing both the application of paint and the creation of structure and narrative.

JK: It’s an interesting contrast: work of an intimate scale aimed at capturing a vast landscape.

Red Cloud
Red Cloud, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2001

GG: This is another place where the Kansas landscape has influenced how I see and work. Known as a “drive-through” state by so many Americans speeding between the coasts, it has a kind of beauty that requires time to appreciate. I once read that the photographers and illustrators who traveled with the first government teams to survey the West had existential meltdowns upon hitting the Great Plains for the first time. They had no way to process the magnitude of what they were seeing, to organize it for themselves—let alone for viewers. I learned to see at the margins of this grand landscape, which also requires the utmost attention and a kind of reverence for the small detail. Even my most minimal paintings are full of nuance and require viewers to stop and look carefully to discern color changes or texture or the touch of my hand.

Paradise, encaustic on paper,
35 x 35 cm (13 3/4 x 13 3/4 in), 2003

JK: You reflect a landscapes thoroughly marked by human activity—with its geometric boundaries and divisions—yet there’s also a powerful sense of human absence in the work as well.

GG: That’s an interesting observation—and one you could make of my other work, too. It’s unusual to find a human subject in my photographs, collages, other paintings. Yet you could say there is a strong human presence in the landscapes and other work; it is human activity that creates the geometric abstractions observable from the air, or the graffiti or signage I love to photograph.

Crookston, encaustic on panel, 61 x 91 cm (24 x 36), 2001

JK: The simplicity and symmetry in your work often conveys a sense of timelessness—or perhaps a place beyond time—peaceful and eternal.

Ames, encaustic on panel, 30 x 61 cm (12 x 24 in), 2001

GG: You’re right, Julie. The earth as observed from the air has a quality of timelessness, a kind of purity. The busy highway interchange becomes a lovely mark on the grid; the furrows stirred up by a noisy tractor create fuzzy lines; the whirring of an irrigator translates into a perfect circle. There’s no sound, no sense of movement —rather a perfect stillness. Of course this is an illusion—but then, painting is about illusion.

Bondurant, encaustic on panel, 61 x 122 cm (24 x 48 in), 2002

JK: In many of your pieces, the color is fairly restrained, and often relies on close relations of tone and hue.

GG: I like the close color/tonal range, allowing the different patterns—and their differences—to speak so clearly. Color is the element of making a painting that I most adore—and struggle the hardest with. I’ve long admired the Georgians, who rejected elaborate dress and decoration for a refined simplicity; a bit of clever ruching or pleating or topstitching made the difference between one white muslin dress or another. My guess is that people were better, more nuanced observers of the things around them, because distinguishing differences took sophistication and careful scrutiny. That’s a long way of saying I try to do this with color, to “get to” color, as a teacher once advised, through quiet variations on a theme.

As you will have observed, I has something of an obsession with the color green. And that is precisely because there is no such thing—there is a multitudinous range of greens. It seems to me to be a color that is particularly sensitive to changes in light. The same “green” tree will be acid-yellow in the morning, blue-gray in late afternoon. I love the challenge of trying to capture these fleeting changes.

Sedonia, encaustic on paper, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 1999

JK: Some of your work appears to have been inspired by Islamic art—once more reflecting your attraction to pattern.

GG: Marakkesh and Fez were made after a visit to Morocco. Islamic art is the original abstract art, as figuration is banned for religious reasons. Pattern is everywhere—as is symbolic color. I was fascinated by the many ways one simple form could be manipulated to create an entirely different pattern. For instance, turning a square on a diagonal. To me, the square reads as quiet, regally holding its own, whereas the diagonal version creates a sense of movement, action. I used local color for these paintings—the color of the sienna earth of the region.

Marakkesh, encaustic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2000
Fez, encaustic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2000

JK: Just as you’ve often referred to your aerial abstractions as “found abstractions,” you’ve more recently happened upon another of source material—one that again has the pattern and simplicity you favor.

GG: Yes. I’ve started making work that incorporates found objects—a chicken crate has become a grid, a Mexican placemat was the starting point for another. The raffia placemat—or salvamanteles—couldn’t have provided a more perfect starting point for a painting. I love it’s quirky irregularity.

Salvamanteles, encaustic on panel, 36 x 25 cm (14 x 10 in), 2005

JK: And the range of these found objects continues to expand.

GG: I recently discovered a mother lode of abstract ideas in my own backyard—or, rather, in my own trash can. For Crosscut, for instance, I used the forms that protected my paper shredder in its carton, painting them with layer upon layer of color.

Crosscut, encaustic on cardboard,
30 x 38 cm (12 x 15 in), 2005

One aspect of the encaustic medium that’s always appealed to me is its sculptural properties. I’ve been tiptoeing into making three-dimensional work, bas-reliefs made from found cardboard packing materials that typically are thrown straight in the trash. I like the stateliness of the object/paintings —and the fact that it’s not clear whether they’re cast or are the actual packing forms themselves. And I like the fact that the forms appear familiar—much as the aerial landscapes, I suppose—but cannot immediately be placed. They’re fun to have around the studio: it’s like having candy hanging on my walls.

JK: And this work with found materials continues.

GG: The packing material paintings have led to a couple of other areas of exploration. I’ve been making pictures by assembling the flat box dividers that come in wine boxes. They are growing in size and complexity, and I’m enjoying discovering how these simple materials can create dynamic compositions. In the end, though, I think these pictures have a strong link to the aerial landscape work; they celebrate a kind of found design, a design that is both familiar and yet hard to place. And they’re almost—but never quite—symmetrical.

Riesling, encaustic on panel, 44 x 32 cm (17.5 x 12.75 in), 2005

JK: You’ve written that you are often drawn to the edges of the visible world. In the case of your newest relief work, we’re really talking about things at the margins of seeing.

GG: Happily, I’ve been enjoying a period when much of what passes through my life now seems ripe for investigation, for use in some way or another in my work. Of late, I’ve found myself casting “trash,” and the most ephemeral trash, at that. Things like the brittle little caps on sauce containers that come with take-out food.

I’m not sure quite what to do with these new objects, which have been made visible and solid in their new form. But I’m staying alert to my hunches. And again, there’s a link to the older work in the found geometry of these objects. There’s something very joyous about them, too; a former student described them as “so Fisher-Price.” I like that—the reference to the wonderful chunky, simplified toys FP makes.

Work in progress, found objects cast in wax, 2 panels,
each 13 x 18 cm (5 x 7 in), 2006

JK: It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun with this work.

GG: A new element in my work this past year is play. Perhaps my more playful interests—my flea market finds, photographic safaris—finally have found their way into my work. A bar of soap can be photographed, scanned, collaged, cast—or serve as an inspiration for a geometric abstraction. It’s a very fertile, unified time.

I notice that friends and family members have had their eyes opened by what I’m making in the studio. When I first began showing the aerial landscapes, friends reported that they booked window seats for the first time and settled in to discover a landscape they’d paid little attention to. I’m seeing the same kind of response to my experiments with “trash”—my friends are as excited as I am about this unobserved world around us. The common denominator in this work? Transformation, an element of humor, a reminder about the quantity of trash that we Americans generate, a reminder that we never take even the simplest thing for granted.

the artist
Gail Gregg in her studio 2006

As a painting undergraduate, I was affected by the often-quoted statement by Georgia O’Keefe that few people ever really look at a flower. I blushed upon reading her admonishment because, at least in my case, she had been so very right. I’m trying much harder these days to really look, to find beauty and new purpose in the humblest of things.

More information about Gail Gregg

Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and Gail Gregg. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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