Thursday, March 08, 2007

Art Space Talk: Guy Colwell

I recently interviewed artist Guy Colwell. Mr. Colwell is known for his controversial paintings. One of his most recent paintings, 'Abuse' is his depiction of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. This painting caused a stir in the media after the gallery where it was shown was attacked (gallery dealer Lori Haigh was attacked and later closed the Capobianco Gallery in San Francisco). 'Abuse' is considered to be Mr. Colwell's most controversial work.

Guy's work is often politically charged. He utilizes his skill as a painter to reveal his social concerns. Themes of pollution, friction between humankind and nature, and social degradation are common in his work.

Although Colwell began as a commercial and comic book artist, he today remains true to his artistic training and political calling. Rip Off Press published a collection of his art between the years 1964-1991, Central Body: The Art of Guy Colwell. Whether or not one agrees with his politics, Colwell refuses to back down from relating his personal view of reality.

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "By age 8 I was receiving satisfying attention for doing artwork. I believe it was the reaction I got when I did a chalk copy of the portrait of George Washington hanging in the classroom. The teacher was impressed that a 7-8 year old kid could make a fairly accurate 3/4 view replica and called my mother. Since my mother was also an artist and had been teaching me, she was not so surprised. But I liked the attention so I think it was then I decided to be a visual artist."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "After spending 18 months in federal prison for refusing to submit to the draft during the Vietnam War, an offense for which I was pardoned by Jimmy Carte, my work became radicalized and began focusing on the real world and real contemporary issues. Before that I had mostly done colorful, psychedelic abstractions with no social commentary at all. It was an extreme change and while my life has been predominantly devoted to doing social realist art, there has always been an undercurrent of inner conflict between this outward engagement with the real world and a strong inner desire to rise above it and work with pure form and color again."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "I can’t come up with an average, I don’t think. I work in so many different scales, from tiny miniatures that take from 2 hours to 2 days to complete, up to huge murals that take many months. I can think of a few paintings that have taken a year or more to complete. One painting, the one many writers refer to as "Colwell’s magnum opus" called Litter Beach, was in progress for a period of 7 years. But if I exclude the miniatures and the giant murals, perhaps about 2 months would be a reasonably correct average."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "In general I follow philosophy of social engagement. An artist should participate in the public discourse about the world and its problems. Just like authors, journalists, political commentators, philosophers and historians, an artist has his or her two cents to add and a duty to add it. And I do my best to make my "voice" heard by producing strong images of social commentary and protest."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "There is one book of my art published in 1991 by the title of Central Body. I was published by Rip Off Press with a printing of just 3000. It may still be available. Unfortunately, this book is so far out of date now. I have done so much important work in the 16 years since it was published that it will give only a very limited and backward looking view of my work. I am currently searching for a publisher who will put out something with my recent work but so far without success. I have also done some comic books which are still floating around but that is far in the past now."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "I’m not sure how to judge what constitutes an "important " exhibition. I had a couple in San Francisco with sales that exceeded $4000. Not all that much but the most I have made in one show. I suppose those were important. I had work in a show called "Crime and Punishment" at the Triton Museum with some big names such as Mel Ramos, Andy Warhol and Clayton Bailey. I suppose that was an important show.

One piece was selected for the traveling show,"The Other America". But actually, the shows I’m having right now at the Esteban Sabar Gallery in Oakland seem as important as any since this has been a solid long term relationship with one gallery that has offered a great deal of help and exposure."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "Not really. My life is busy with family and freelance work so when I can get into my studio to do my own artwork, I don’t indulge in any "ritual" luxuries, I just go to work."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "This is hard to say. For anyone to want my art, I think they must be looking for something else besides mere wall decorations. my work is challenging, political and even emotionally intrusive, making both the intellectual and the sub conscious minds work hard at getting the arguments about the modern world I am making. So appreciators of my work are usually people with a keen interest in political discourse, history and current events."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "I suppose the one piece that would have to be considered important because it has created the most public sensation would be the paintings The Abuse. It shows U.S. soldiers involved in the torture of prisoners as inspired by the photos from Abu Ghraib. I was angry when I saw these photos. I always believed that teaching our service people to respect the laws of war, the laws against torture and the laws requiring humane treatment of prisoners was of the highest importance. I could not believe that these things were happening because a few night shift M.P.s were just having a good time.

I thought and still think that a policy or cruel and degrading treatment to obtain information came down from the top. Instead of teaching these soldiers the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and their duty to refuse unlawful orders, they were given sanction from above to participate in this abuse. My painting was a protest against torture, cruelty and war. The reaction to The Abuse was astounding and provides a stark lesson on the power of visual images.

The painting was placed in a gallery window and soon a series of attacks against the gallery commenced. It started with some garbage being dumped on the front sidewalk and escalated to the gallery director being beaten up and the gallery being shut down. I guess it is hard for some people to believe their country would do such cruel things and would rather believe a reinterpretation of the Abu Ghraib photos represented some kind of lie or slur against soldiers. A lot of information about this painting and the reaction to it can be found on the web by searching my name or the term The Abuse Painting."

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "I attended the California College of Arts and Crafts. I dropped out after two years to take a break, get some real life work experience (I spent a year doing sculpture at the Mattel Toy Co.) and planned to return to college. The Vietnam war, however, was raging by then and when confronted with the draft I chose to protest that wrong-headed war by refusing induction. Consequently my life got redirected and I never returned to college.

I sometimes regret, sometimes celebrate the fact that I did not spend that much time in college. It is something of a handicap now when I have the experience to share my skills and could be a good teacher, but I have tried often and found that schools are not hiring instructors without a degree.

I value the time I had at CCAC most especially for the drawing courses, methods and materials and art history. But I was also disappointed by a few of the teachers who seemed to sit on the side and never engage the class. These teachers made me feel I was wasting my time, so I left."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "I have worked in many media, oil, acrylic, watercolor, block printing, ink drawing, pencil drawing, stencils and many others. I’m not sure I consider the medium so important as the message. What I say has always been a bigger deal to me than what I use to say it. But anyway, I would have to say that oil painting is my favorite, though in fact today I use acrylic more than oil. This is partly due to health issues. The turpentine was destroying my lungs. When I paint in oils now I use water mixable oils which I am quite happy with."

Q. Where can we see more of your art? Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?

A. "My paintings are displayed at the Esteban Sabar Gallery in Oakland CA whch has represented me since January 2006. I am expecting to have something shown at the 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco but probably not until 08. There are some works, notably my masterwork copies and other originals, at Chenery House in San Francisco. Otherwise at this time it is only on my web site that my work can be seen."

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "I don’t know what value my tips would be. I have been toiling in the fields of art for over 50 years and the recognition I have received is small and very slow in coming. I don’t want to say just do it for the joy and not for the money. I have always wanted to be rewarded for the dedication I’ve shown. I have no secrets that will help a young artist achieve success. But if you need to do art, just do it and see where it takes you. I also want to tell artists not to get caught up in the games of doing art for the "art scene".

It may be attractive to want to jump into doing the trendy stuff that gets a lot of play in big museums and galleries, but honestly, isn’t most of this so called art rather boring and trivial? Respond to the world and engage yourself in the conversation about making a better world. That’s my advice."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "I’ve had many rock bottoms. These are the times when I become demoralized and lose the sense that what I do has any value to anyone; when, as often happens, I have no work on display anywhere, I can find no one interested in showing or seeing my work. Then I look at the huge inventory of unsold work and wonder what is the point? This state of mind usually strikes when I am between painting projects and usually if I get a new inspiration for a work, just doing the work pulls me out."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "I have to."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Guy Colwell. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


pescador said...

hi guy
i discovered your work and liked soo much, very interesting the political content of your paintings, there are very inpirating, i'm an artist too, and my work is very related to yours, am from chile and i live around oakland, i would like to get in touch with you, come over and visit me...
salud and respects

viridari said...

Do you have a means of contacting Guy Colwell? I am a genealogist and I think that we might be distantly related. I'm trying to fill in some blanks.