Guy Diehl: A Dialogue with Tradition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery

Guy Diehl's second solo show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, "A Dialogue with Tradition," consists of a suite of still life paintings that feature bottles, blocks, spheres, and boxes. The painting's objects make references to modern art and artists -- including Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Morandi, and Robert Delaunay -- but Diehl's technique alludes to 17th century Baroque painting. A major theme of the exhibition is "art about art," but the show is also a visual feast that offers viewers a chance to contemplate transparency, the sparkle of light on glass, and the mesmerizing illusion of three dimensionality that a only a highly skilled painter can achieve.

I recently interviewed Guy Diehl and asked him about his background, his ideas, and his works as a painter, muralist and tapestry artist.

Guy Diehl

John Seed Interviews Guy Diehl

Tell me a bit about your background and your art education.

I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1949. As a kid with dyslexia, my early induction into the world of self-expression was met with criticism rather than acclaim. In Catholic grade school I was sent to the Mother Superior for doodling at my desk when I should have been doing the assignment. On my way to her office, I was marched through the church where large religious oil paintings were displayed. I was so affected by their realism that at that young age, I decided that I needed to know more about art.

Throughout grade school, my parents would say, Yeah, you can draw things, but how are you going to make a living? You can't read. When I would draw something realistically, I would hear: Wow! How did you do that? That looks so real.

At the age of eight I stumbled upon the magic of linear perspective and with this new perception suddenly a whole new world was unlocked. From that point on, there wasn't anything else I was interested in. All this played a part in how I would deal with my dyslexia and shape my life and career as an artist. Through grade school and high school my attention never wavered. I knew that my future would somehow be in the art world.

In 1960 my family moved to Northern California and settled east of San Francisco, in the town of Concord. As a senior at Clayton Valley High School in 1967, I had completed all the art classes offered at the school. While looking forward to further study at the college level, I took a job creating silk screen posters for a dance venue on campus. It was the dawn of a new age and psychedelic posters were the rage.

One poster I completed, which featured Louis Carroll's hookah smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland was met with criticism. As it hung on campus, it was viewed as a symbol of the current social movement in this country. As some parents demanded that it be removed, a discourse on freedom of expression ensued which made the front page of the local paper. That incident was my first strong realization that art had power, and that art could be a catalyst for emotional debate.

During the years 1968-1970 I attended Diablo Valley Community College in Pleasant Hill, CA. After completing prerequisite courses, I headed to California State University at Hayward, California. At Hayward, I studied with Pop artist Mel Ramos and multimedia artist Raymond Saunders, graduating with my BA in Art in 1973. During this period of time, Photo Realism was well established and part of the mainstream painting in the Bay Area. I was greatly influenced by the classes I took from Mel Ramos at Hayward. He encouraged me to do my graduate work at San Francisco State University and to study with the photorealist artists Richard McLean and Robert Bechtle.

In 1974 I was accepted into the graduate program at SFSU and graduated with honors in 1976. From this point on, a ten year exploration of Photo Realism in acrylic paintings and watercolors ensued. My paintings at that time all centered on the unique California lifestyle which included the swimming pool and beach scene. I would set up the compositions using towels, drinks, chairs and lounges. At first, my paintings centered on the figure at ease around the pool. After a period of time, I started painting everything but the human figure. It was as if the people had stepped away, and the viewer was left with the paraphernalia of the sunbather. I did not realize it at the time, but this was to be a period of transition which would lead me to the genre I am now most conntected to: the Still Life.

In 1976, fresh out of graduate school, I became a faculty member at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA. I taught painting, drawing and watercolor. Over the next 20 years, as I continued to paint, I was a faculty member at several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Your paintings are very refined and completely realized: have they always been that way? 

This refined look of my work has always been there, even as a kid I drew things to look real. My dyslexia and the anxiety of what I was going to do with my life, pointed me in the direction of realism. At the same time, (the mid 60s) photorealism was taking hold as an art movement along with Pop Art. Any positive recognition that I received growing up was because I could render or copy things that showed realism.

In 1968 I enrolled in my first college art class: Painting 101. With each assignment I focused on realism as a solution. Forty-five years later, I'm still at it.

As a representational artist, I see myself as an interpreter, who is making a record of his observations. These observations are intuitive, as well as responsive to images within the composition. The satisfaction with my work comes when I can make a painting as minimal as possible and still capture the fundamental appearance of the subject matter. To know what to paint and what to exclude is the challenge. This distillation helps reveal the essence of a painting. As I continue this exploration, I'm challenged to take my work further both in content and subject matter. I see the refinement and depth that I want from my work grow and evolve as I move closer to what is most important to me; to make a worthy painting that connects me with the world both past and present.

During this period of still life. I started to focus on the book as the primary subject matter in my paintings. I use the book as a vehicle to add the commentary aspect to the subject matter and act as unifier to the whole. Within this series of Book paintings, compositional references are made to Cubism; German Expressionism; the music of Jazz; Abstract Expressionism; and to the artists of the early Modernism period from 1900 to the 1950s. These paintings express the underlying content and importance that the "book" gives to my still life work. My hope is to first capture the viewer's attention with the objects themselves, then by the choice of books and their titles I encourage the viewer's further reflection on the work, which provides the subtext to the initial first visual impression. By selecting and arranging objects, I can then introduce a narrative into my paintings.

Can you say a few things about your working methods?

I have always worked in a series. In the 70s it was a photorealism "Swimming Pool" series with the figure. In 1985 I started my "Still Life" series. From that first painting class in 1968, all of my work on canvas has been done in acrylic. I also work with watercolor on paper.

I work from a source image that I've photographed. For the still life series, subject matter is composed and photographed, later reviewed in all it's variations to determine whether or not it is suitable for a good painting. 

The process of making a painting boils down to my 45 years of working with acrylics. Today the challenge is not whether I can paint something realistic. It's what to paint... and how to compose a group of objects in controlled light and shadow that will reveal some sense of order without being overly contrived or familiar.

I paint only what I think is appropriate and leave out what's not necessary. By paying attention to only the important details that the direct and reflective light reveal, I can make a painting that's more interesting. I think this is a universal problem that representational artists have dealt with all along; putting in too much detail versus not enough.

Your recent works have a very pronounced atmosphere, and a new range of forms. How has all of this come about and why?

Here is some of the backstory to the Still Life series.

In 1984 my subject matter began to change from the swimming pool paintings when I started to look at the Bay Area painter Gordon Cook and his exquisite, minimal still life. His work changed my idea of what still life painting was and showed me what it could be. I began painting smaller, more intimate works where I could work faster and execute an idea in a shorter period. This newfound freedom moved me to a higher level and allowed me to produce more and to move away from the strict Photo Realism style of painting, to a more flexible interpretation of what I was seeing. In these small still life paintings I incorporate visual references that would soon incorporate the idea of art about art.

The idea of pronounced atmosphere in my work came about soon after I started the Still Life series in 1985. Light and shadow, whether sun light or incandescent, light has always been an important factor in my work as a realist. It's the light that falls on an object that is most important to me, almost more important then the subject matter. The angle at which a light is focused on an arrangement of objects has always evoked a great sense of power, depth, and emotion. The task of lighting a scene is an art in itself, such as the dramatic lighting you would see in a Film Noir movie.

More recent paintings have incorporated new objects. Out of a need to move to the next level, I'm always on the look out for what might be good to paint. I try to stay away from nostalgic subject matter, like old kitchen and home appliances. There are plenty of still life painters doing that already. Like Giorgio Morandi, I look for things that have symmetry and grace in their shape. The simple form: the cube, cone, cylinder, sphere, rectangle, all placed in that light of pronounced atmosphere. It's all about the light and shadow.

Who are some of the artists you admire most, living and dead?

Boy, there are many...

Giorgio Morandi, Wayne Thiebaud, Gordon Cook, David Ligare, Jeffery Ripple, Elmer Bischoff, Ralph Goings, John Singer Sargent, Chardin, Vermeer, Modigliani, Picasso, Franz Kline, de Kooning, Rothko, Edward Hopper, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray: I could go on and on.

More recently, self-taught, folk art artist, Bill Traylor...

Some of the influential professors I have studied with are Mel Ramos, Ray Sounders, Richard McLean and Robert Bechtle.

Guy Diehl with his mural "Still Life with Billie Holiday," Davis, California. Photo: John Seed

A few years ago you completed a public mural in Davis. What was it like to bring your imagery to that level of scale, and what have the reactions been? 

I volunteered to do the mural in Davis without knowing what I was getting into. It was Kelly Detweiler who said....Oh, come on Guy; join us. It'll be fun. Well, it was a lot of fun. As a team of ten, we prepared and worked on each mural to a point where the artist could then take over their mural to completion. I was the seventh mural in the series of 12, and was more confident in doing it by then. There was a lot of concern in my mind as to whether or not I could pull this off.

Scaling my work from a canvas painting to 9 by 11 feet was the challenge. Getting the image on the wall was no problem. We would project and trace off the outline needed to get started. The actual painting was a group effort. The team helped get areas rendered to a point where I could take over and introduce my style to create the finished look. Five days later I was able to say it's done and feel good about the mural. I would have to say, it was one of the most rewarding projects of my career. The positive reaction to all the murals has been more than we imagined, every one seems to love the art. It definitely has made Davis a place to stop, look at art and take in the town.

 The reaction to my mural, Still Life with Billie Holiday has been quite favorable. To be able to direct the viewer's thoughts to her... and the music she created, is my tribute to her. If you would like to view the mural, you can locate it on the Davis Art Walk website.

Still Life with Kasimir Malevich, 2007, Jacquard Tapestry, 54 x 76 inches, edition of 8
Image: Magnolia Editions
Please say a few things about your recent work with Magnolia Editions.

Since 1988, I've had an ongoing working relationship with Don & Era Farnsworth at Magnolia Editions Fine Art Press. We have been producing state of the art limited edition lithographs, etchings, woodcut and woven Jacquard tapestries from my still life series. Currently, we are working on Hybrid prints. Combining traditional hand pulled woodblock and etching prints with digital applications of color. I find it very exciting to be at the forefront of this technology at Magnolia. It has unlocked new avenues to exhibit my work and make it accessible to a wider audience.

One of the more exciting mediums of exploration at Magnolia is the tapestry project. Working with Don, we have transformed four of my paintings into large format Jacquard tapestries, averaging 6 x 7 feet. The goal is not to reproduce a painting verbatim into a woven image, but to incorporate that image into a centuries old textile process which has been enhanced by new technology.

What are your interests outside of art? 

Cooking for family and friends, mountain biking, collecting vintage 20th century cameras and chess are a few: and being totally in love with my high school sweetheart.

When visitors see your work in person at Dolby Chadwick, what do you hope they will notice and appreciate?

I hope to encourage the viewers to see a sense of uniform balance and harmony in the work as a whole, as well as in each of the paintings in the exhibition. I also hope viewers will recognize and understand my references to art history and artists that are remixed within the compositions and that my work conveys as much about the manipulation of paint on canvas as it does about realism.

As they observe the works, I hope that viewers will take a moment and pause with the idea that "less is more," and will notice the virtue of an object illuminated within a spatial arrangement. Finally I hope they will walk away with a need to see more art that is well executed and removed from the mediocrity that often seems to accompany the Still Life genre.

Guy Diehl
A Dialogue with Tradition
September 5 -- 28, 2013
Opening Reception: Thursday, September 5, 5:30-7:30 PM
Dolby Chadwick Gallery 
210 Post Street, Suite 205
San Francisco CA, 94108

A Modest Proposal for MOCA: Show More Representational Paintings

Dear MOCA,

As I recently clicked through the Twitter feed for the Urs Fischer show, I came across a tweet by Galen Pehrson, an artist/streaker who obviously loved the show. He tweeted: Urs Fischer show best enjoyed naked and jumping, and included a photo of himself streaking naked through the crowd-sourced assortment of fired clay pieces on exhibition. Pehrson, by the way, has executed two recent video commissions for MOCA: one for the current REBEL exhibition, and another for MOCAtv. 
Artist Galen Pehrson (@Cagedpillow) photographed by Jena Malone (@MaloneJena)
OK, that looks like a lot of fun but it got me thinking about a paradox. MOCA has now become a place where you just might see a live naked person but it is very unlikely that you might see a painting of a naked person there, especially one executed with real skill. Marina Abramovic's live human centerpieces have been seen there (at MOCA's December, 2011 Gala) but Odd Nerdrum's masterful paintings of human figures have not.

Odd Nerdrum, Night Jumper, 2012, oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 114 1/2 inches

Since it opened in 1983 MOCA has certainly shown representational paintings -- Suzanne Caporeal had a nice mini-show in the summer of 1985 -- but an invisible art world line has screened out whole genres of painting, most notably realism and other approaches that have their foundations in skillful drawing and rendering. In true country club style MOCA's curators must have been quietly rationalizing this exclusion:"The other museums can show those artists...and they aren't contemporary..." In the comments at the end of this blog would someone please explain to me why, for example, a great living realist like Antonio López García can't be shown in a contemporary museum?

Like other leading American and European contemporary museums and galleries, MOCA has narrowly defined contemporary to mean works that have their roots in Duchamp, Warhol and postmodern theory. If you feel, as I do, that Postmodernism officially expired when Paul McCarthy's giant inflatable turds deflated in Hong Kong this May, you may share my view that a new point of departure is needed. If anything, MOCA's soon-to-depart Director Jeffrey Dietch accelerated the museum's trajectory towards an atomized, novelty-driven form of Postmodernism. As Tulsa Kinney of Artillery magazine put it in an editorial reflecting on the sacking of curator Paul Schimmel and Director Jeffrey Deitch's imminent departure: MOCA made a mistake. They traded substance for glitz.

MOCA, as it prepares to choose a new director and hopefully hire at least one new curator, has a great opportunity at hand to renew and broaden its curatorial vision with an infusion of substance. Paul Schimmel was a powerhouse but even his vision had its perimeter when it came to representation. Wouldn't this be a fantastic moment for MOCA to woo back the respect of its public and ally the suspicions that it has become a display window for its trustees and their dealers? It would also be a chance for the museum to reach out to some of the L.A. based representational painters who long ago gave up any hope of receiving a phone call from a MOCA curator.

To reassert its identity as truly progressive institution MOCA's future plans could and should include showing what the the Hammer and the soon-to-open Broad Museum won't be showing in the coming years: an all-encompassing range of contemporary representational paintings. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, one source tells me that Jeffrey Deitch had quietly been working to craft a show of New Figurative Painting prior to the announcement of his departure. If this rumor is true I say good for Deitch and I hope the exhibition comes together.

MOCA's next director should plan on hiring a chief curator who is knowledgeable about and friendly towards representational painting. What a fresh, challenging statement that would be: the conversations about MOCA around town would instantly be turned upside-down and inside out. Isn't that part of what MOCA was always meant to do? Would I expect MOCA's entire orientation and program to suddenly make a U-turn? Of course not. What I am proposing is that MOCA add challenging new flavors to its future programmatic recipe.

To give this conversation more specificity -- and to help MOCA's theoretical new Head Curator plan some shows -- I am appending an alphabetical list of living, working painters whose work would look splendid at MOCA. I have purposely omitted some artists who are already well known to Southern Californians: Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney for example.

The 40 artists who appear on this list are individuals, and this list has no hierarchies or priorities. Their names have been culled from over 135 suggestions that were given to me. I made the final selections based on my subjective views, whims and caprices. If your name or the name of an artist you suggested is not on this list keep in mind that the omission may reflect inadequate caffeine in my bloodstream at the time I was making selections. Hopefully you will still share this blog and show your support for the artists who are listed.

Because of the difficulty that would have been involved in posting a large number of images I have simply linked each name to the artist's personal website, or a site containing examples of his or her work. I would very much like to thank my Facebook friends for helping me assemble this list. Like Urs Fischer I know that crowd-sourcing is a great way to get things done.

Artists for MOCA's Consideration

Lennart Anderson
Frank Auerbach
William Bailey
Bo Bartlett
Margaret Bowland
Kimberly Brooks
Rebecca Campbell
Matthew Couper
John Currin
Vincent Desiderio
Antonio López García
Adrian Ghenie
April Gornik
Anne Harris
Julie Heffernan
Michael Herbold
F. Scott Hess
Israel Hershberg
Alex Kanevsky
Kurt Kauper
Brad Kunkle
Stanley Lewis
Daniel Maidman
Sangram Majumdar
Susanah Martin
Dan McCleary
Adam Miller
Odd Nerdrum
Scott Noel
Graydon Parrish
Paula Rego
Jenny Saville
John Sonsini
Daniel Sprick
Kyle Staver
Jon Swihart
Marc Trujillo
James Valerio
Dino Valls
Nicola Verlato
Jerome Witkin
Liu Xiadong
Peter Zokosky

Peri Schwartz: "Painting is Like Breathing for Me."

Peri Schwartz, whose work is currently on view in the three-person exhibition "Dwellings" at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, is a formalist and a seeker of harmonies. Schwartz's compositions get their rigor from the implied presence of a grid, which she offsets and punctuates with painterly gestures and harmonies of color and value. Her most recent oils -- studio interiors and still lifes of translucent bottles and jars --  have the expressive vitality of perfectly executed chamber music.

I recently interviewed Peri Schwartz and asked her about her background, her development, and her artistic values.

 John Seed Interviews Peri Schwartz

Peri Schwartz: Photo by Donna Callighan

Peri, tell me something about your family background. Are you the first person in your family to take an interest in art?

Yes, the first in my immediate family but I have a lot of cousins that are artists.

My mother has a great eye and is one of my best critics. She also encouraged me from a very early age to pursue my passion. Her house is filled with beautifully framed drawings, paintings and prints from every stage in my development.

My cousin, Gary Schwartz, lives in Holland. He has written numerous important books on Rembrandt and other Dutch artists. One of the best memories I have was the first time I visited him and his family in the lovely town of Maarssen. He took me to the Rijksmuseum and pointed out Saenredam, an artist I had never heard of. Saenredam does magnificent paintings of church interiors and is an artist I frequently return to.

Maggie Painting, 1970, 23" x 19," oil on board

Tell me about your art education in Boston. What mentors made an impact on you?

Boston University's School of Fine Arts was a very serious place and I was in bliss. Our training in drawing and painting was traditional and very rigorous. Joseph Ablow taught composition and it was my favorite class. He had studied with Albers at Yale and was brilliant in demonstrating how a painting is constructed. He introduced me to Morandi, an artist that continues to inspire me.

Sometimes BU could be a bit too traditional. I was fortunate to be at a summer program BU had at Tanglewood. There I studied with Robert D'Arista, a terrific painter and teacher from American University. Unlike the teachers at BU, he wanted us to work quickly and intuitively. It shook me up quite a bit and I did some of my best student work that summer.

Studio, 1975, 52" x 44", oil on canvas

You think a bit like Vermeer: you like to turn your studio into an entire world. Tell me about that tendency and how it evolved. 

I have two very vivid recollections of using the studio as a subject. The first was when I was at BU. It was dusk and I was alone in the drawing studio. I saw the easels silhouetted against the windows and did a charcoal drawing. The second time was when I had my own studio as a graduate student at Queens College. It seemed to be the perfect subject with a mirror, stool with pad on it and other painting materials. In that painting are all the things I continue to use in my studio interiors.

Yes, I look at Vermeer a lot and am especially interested in how he used the architecture of the windows as verticals and diagonals. Often the proportion of the painting or wall hanging is echoing the dimensions of the canvas. I find it fascinating that Vermeer was a strong influence on Mondrian, whose paintings are like skeletons of the Vermeers.

Studio Self-Portrait, 1998, 68" x 40", oil on canvas

You have said that the "grid is not a restriction." Can you expand on that?

I don't begin with a grid, the grid emerges. For example, in my Bottles and Jars paintings, I randomly set up the bottles and jars on the table. In trying to find the middle of the composition I measure where that will be. From there I divide it again and this is how the grid comes into play. It's a tool that helps me find the intervals. Often I will draw a line that is part of the grid, confident that it belongs where I drew it. As the painting progresses I inevitably move the bottles or jars and paint over part of the line. When the painting is done there are grid lines that weave in and out of the composition but are never uniform.

Studio XVIII, 2007, 56" x 44", oil on canvas

Many artists are afraid of rulers, but you aren't. Do you have a background in drafting?

No, but at BU we were taught how to use a plumb line when drawing the model. As my work developed I became more and more interested in how things lined up on that horizontal or vertical line. Instead of using a pencil I began using rulers. When I started drawing corresponding lines on the tables, floor and walls in my compositions, I needed more rulers that were longer.

Bottles & Jars V, 2009, 20" x 32", oil on canvas

How do you know when a painting is finished?

For me, finishing a painting is a balancing act. I want to retain the freshness of the paint and at the same time get everything in the right position. The painting is usually finished when I can't bear to move one more object.

Roy II, 2012, 28" x 20", monotype

Although you are mainly known for still life imagery, you have done some wonderful monotype portraits. Do you plan on doing more work with the figure?

Thank you. I spent many years doing self-portraits. The portraits that I do are from people I know whose faces are interesting to me. I work directly from life and it takes me several hours to do a drawing or print. That makes it difficult to get someone to commit to posing. I am sure I will do more portraits but the timing has to be right for me and my subject.

Studio #13, 2012, 30.5" x 28", charcoal and ink on mylar

In addition to your paintings, you create numerous black and white drawings: tell me about the importance of drawing to your artistic practice.

It has always been essential in my development to alternate between drawing and painting. There is a wonderful sense of rediscovering the materials after you have not used them for a while. I imagine drawing is like writing a poem or short story- the limitations lead to a certain kind of freedom.

Bottles & Jars XXI,2011, 22" x 26", oil on canvas

What forces are pulling you towards abstraction in your work?

From the beginning of my art education, I have been interested in the compositions of great paintings, particularly Degas, Morandi and Diebenkorn. What interests me most is how they take a subject and use it to make a brilliant composition. I tend to seesaw back and forth with paintings that are more and then less abstract. Because working directly from life is so essential to me, I can't imagine doing a painting or drawing where the viewer is left without a sense of real space. Being on that edge is where I want to be.

Studio XXXIV, 2013, 54" x 44", oil on canvas

What are your interests outside of art?

Listening to classical music, especially small ensembles, is vital to me. I go to concerts frequently and aside from getting emotionally involved in the music, I like to watch how the musicians communicate with each other. When I am back at the studio, the relationships between my still life objects remind me of the communication I observed between the musicians.

If you could tell someone in a single sentence why you paint, what would that sentence say?

Painting is like breathing for me: I couldn't live without it.

Peri Schwartz: studio (Completed Painting Version) from Peri Schwartz on Vimeo.

Dwellings: Christopher Benson | Tom Birkner | Peri Schwartz
July 26 - August 24, 2013
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am - 5pm
 Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe 1011
Paseo de Peralta Santa Fe, NM 87501