Here we are, back with the second and final installment of our interview with Caleb Weintraub. If you’ve not read part one, it’s here. In part one, we learned about where Caleb’s coming from and the ideas that drive the work. In today ‘s installment, he talks more about the making of the works.
And so, without further ado….Caleb Weintraub interview, pt. 2.
MWC: What is the hard part of painting for you?
CW: The hardest part is setting up…for real. Setting up and cleaning brushes. If I could just sit there and have a robot clean my studio every ten minutes and clear my palette, pour paint and do all that, it would be a lot easier. Every time I have to stop to do anything I have a hard time tapping back in. As I’m saying it, it sounds like I just need a studio assistant—but I don’t think I could paint with someone else there.
MWC: What is the fun part?
CW: The fun parts: starting, and when a spatial illusion occurs without forcing it, and pushing the paint around, watching it drag and drip. That’s fun.
MWC: The word ‘riffing’ is big with a lot of my artist friends right now. Does this word mean anything in regard to you or your work?
CW: I guess so. You could say I riff on the old masters, their epic paintings, their compositions and characters. I quote things but in my work it’s all been subverted. Even the use of acrylic paint is a kind of riff. I looks like oil, but the surface is more synthetic. There’s something about it that denies a certain kind of sensuality. It seems to admit the artifice.
MWC: Do you love or hate one-liners?
CW: I like good one liners. If I can remember it, I like it.
MWC: There’s a famous Philip Guston quote: “What kind of man am I sitting at home, reading magazines, going around in a frustrated fury about everything–and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be something I could do about it.” Thinking about this quote, I wonder: would it be fair to call you a greedy painter? To say that you want it all, the social agenda and the formal rigor that Guston felt he was choosing between?
CW: Hmmm. I’m definitely a greedy painter in that regard. I do want it all to be in there—paint, material, action, content. I don’t care much for personal expression. If the expression overwhelms the painting, it comes across to me more as therapy than as art, so I wouldn’t be satisfied with that kind of expression in my own work. The whole social agenda thing is meant more to serve the narrative flow of my painting. To pull people in. I don’t need the paintings to effect social change. I need them to be compelling and thought-provoking. A lot of art is driven by a “Look at me. Look what I can do.” approach. But I don’t think that’s so bad…human achievement, the ability to wow each other and be wowed confirms something essential–the right to live or the will to live. It reflects an attitude that we all admire which is the desire to transform and the refusal to simply accept what one has or one knows.
MWC: When is it important to be ‘accurate’ or ‘right’ in a painting?
CW: I don’t have any thoughts about accuracy–but I know what ‘right’ is. ‘Right’ is when the paint looks like it was applied with assurance. And when the imagery wasn’t questioned by the artist. That’s what ‘right’ means to me. Most of the time when a painter isn’t overly conscious, the work being done will be right. If a painter is overly aware of his or her marks as a painting is being made, some of that apprehension gets transferred to the mark and it may look wrong.
MWC: What is a day in the studio like for you?
CW: Every day is different. But it always starts with coffee. Buckets of coffee. I paint when I can throughout the day. An hour here, a minute there, between work and emails and family and other stuff. My real studio day usually starts when my house is asleep. 9 PM or so. It goes on until as early in the morning, as late as I can go–3 or 4 AM.
MWC: Are you an improviser?
CW: I usually have some idea beforehand but once I’m working on it I become an improviser. Whatever is near me is fair game to be painted or become part of a painting.
MWC: Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.
CW: Not to be precious. To always be willing to change.
MWC: Tell us about one useful thing you learned for yourself.
CW: I have two and a half useful things:
Better to be great and risk failing than accept mediocrity. The worst kinds of paintings are forgettable paintings.
Cheat if you can. If there’s a quick route that won’t compromise the depth of a painting, take it. No one knows or cares if a painting took 10 minutes or 10 months—so lean towards 10 minutes. When I was an undergrad, working from photos was a major taboo. There was a strong distaste for the artificial and it was considered cheating on some level. Using tape to get hard edges was looked at as a sacrilege. Overt narrative was still considered simple-minded and impure. But I always wanted some kind of story, and in terms of imagery I wanted disparate characters and dreamlike spaces, airless places that are near impossibilities. Because of the fear of using photos, I would go to great lengths to arrange complex set-ups and hire models to recreate situations I had seen or imagined. The blending of the contrived event and the observed imagery seemed all wrong and the preparation was absolute labor. In the back of my mind I knew I wanted to use photographs as some of my resources. They were accesible, airless and artificial, and there was an endless pool of them on the internet. If I wanted a cherry blossom at 2:15 AM, I could have a cherry blossom. If I needed a mast of a ship in a landlocked state, I wouldn’t have to get a grant to go to Cape Town. It took me a long time to overcome my programmed prejudice against photos as sources for paintings, but once I allowed myself to cheat, I realized that cheating is only being economical. It’s different for everyone. For me, the combination of the photos and my imagination and my experience working from life added up to someting I’ been wanting to get at for a long time. So by ‘cheat’, I just mean that artists should do whatever they have to do to make a work happen and make it great. Use every resource at their disposal.
MWC: How do you start a painting?
CW: With a loose idea of what’s happening, what kind of place it is, who and where the main characters may be. They begin as broad areas of color and loose thrashes of paint. As I move on, I manipulate the space and look for specific sources to bridge the gap between what’s on the canvas and what’s in my mind.
MWC: Any good tips for painting babies?
CW: If you want a baby to look like a baby watch out for the eyebrows. They barely have any…
MWC: What’s in the future for you?
CW: Oil paintings. New theme. Even bigger. Less violent. More fantasy.
MWC: Well put. Thanks!
Want to see more? Caleb’s website is here.