The following review was included in the catalog for Chris Gwaltney’s “Time Is…” exhibition at Seager Gray Gallery. Click here to view the full catalog >>
Chris Gwaltney World
By Bolton Colburn, Former Director Laguna Art Museum
Literally stepping off into abstraction, the figure in Chris Gwaltney’s painting Up, More Up performs a Kafkaesque metamorphosis as it leaves the diving board, with one leg flattening into a mere black shape. The physical weight of the figure is absorbed and counterbalanced by this abutting color-shape, an apt visual metaphor for the transition from one state to another, and of the thin line that constitutes the separation between being and not being.
Gwaltney is a man daily saturated with the unrelenting rays of the southern California sun. His outdoor lifestyle, including a penchant for surfing, golfing, and tennis, has taken its toll on the artist manifesting as skin lesions that have had to be sliced and chopped from his body on a regular basis. Given this constant reminder of his mortality and the transitory nature of life, it is no surprise that his current work often reflects on essential questions of existence.
The last half dozen years for Chris have been especially subject to change in that key relationships in his life have been shifting significantly. At first, his ailing father needing him, his grown son not. The final passing of his father and his father-and-law within a few months of each other have set the stage for some serious reflections on the cycle of life and his new role as the family patriarch.
As a result, Gwaltney has spent the last three years challenging conventions he has developed in his painting practice over several decades. During this investigation, he tried eliminating the figure, emphasizing a horizontal orientation over a vertical one, and playing with the principles of abstraction. In a resulting new body of work, Chris has returned to the figure with the lessons gained during his three years of experimentation.
Gwaltney learned the mechanics of paint closely studying the work of the San Francisco Bay Area Figurative painters, a movement of the 1950s that included Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, although Nathan Oliveira’s work springs up as his closest source. In Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980, Thomas Albright points out that Oliveira “….belonged to a classical strain of agonized expressionism that seemed to reflect an existential view of man—battered, tragic, but enduring.”
Rather than reflecting the pathos of existentialism, however, Gwaltney’s figures act more as a springboard for his reflections about life. Even though the artist will tell you he is not, he is very social, and his paintings can be seen as vestiges of conversations he is having on canvas. Once he makes a mark the conversation begins, reflecting what’s on his mind. More often than not, he’s either absorbed in thoughts about his familial relationships or the mark he just made on the canvas, or both.
Gwaltney’s natural inclination when he approaches a fresh canvas is to make a vertical mark. That divides the canvas into two sides—a visual format conducive to conversation. Conversely, if you divide the canvas horizontally you end up with a top and a bottom, with the lower half potentially in a subordinate position. Pictorially, a horizontal line on a blank canvas suggests a horizon while a vertical line suggests a figure.
Like a pianist who knows their repertoire so well they let their fingers do the playing, Gwaltney’s mark making is so casually done that it appears arbitrary. However, it is anything but inconsequential and is filled with meaning. In Tied to Memory, for example, the figure bisecting the horizon line seems to be moving off away from the viewer into the landscape. Movement is conveyed in two ways: by the red outline suggesting the bottom of a foot as it lifts off in motion, and the gap between the arm and torso suggesting a figure in mid-stride. The yawning gap between the figure’s thighs also contributes to this visual metaphor for a past memory that may be fading.
In Place to Stand, Gwaltney makes a Jean-Michel Basquiat-like gesture by lining out the words “looking back” suggesting looking for a position or perspective in order to consider the past or, perhaps, a place to stand in this world given one’s history. Seeking such a perspective on life may come after one has lived long enough to see a shift in generations and to understand that the ground for any position taken is always shifting and changing.
Sometimes the artist’s figures, like those in Scatter, struggle to gain physicality and are threatened with obscurity, surrounded by swirling cloud-like shapes. It is as if the figures are willing themselves into existence, or are in some sort of dance with the abstraction of paint, struggling for sentience and the right to exist on the canvas.
In Daily Mindset and Water Slows Us Down, Chris releases the figure from this struggle and instead they exist in stasis with their surroundings. Both are largely meditative and monochromatic paintings (Daily Mindset is Bazooka bubble gum pink and Water Slows Us Down milky blue) in which figures slowly trod through water making ripples and casting shadows. Encased in a haze-like fog, the figures are involved in a mystical transition, suspended in a moment when interaction with the elements causes things to slow, distance to be obscured, direction to be called into question, and there is a suspension of physical reference. In these two paintings, the figures seemingly find peace.
The Dress plays with the conventions and ideas of two other influential Bay Area artist/teachers–Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann. In the painting, a layer of color is torn off to reveal another color below (as in the work of Still), while creating an illusion of space, depth, and movement by using color and shape alone (as in the work of Hofmann). The figure in The Dress is ambiguously balanced in space and could either be in the foreground or background. The artist pushes the issue of spatial ambiguity further by mixing the oranges and greens in the dress itself (warm colors come forward; cool colors recede), seemingly reflecting on an individual torn between two worlds.
Paintings by the artists that are more directly about relationships–those that include more than one figure like Purple Heart, Summer Solstice, Pulse Time, and Shout Because Whispers Fail– tend to be narrative driven. One of the most literal is Purple Heart, a painting about the recent passing of Gwaltney’s father-in-law, which includes the date he died–July 13, 2014. The father’s love for his daughter is conveyed by a string of hearts leading from him to her. The artist manages to elevate the subject matter above a cliché by painting the excessively sentimental imagery lushly and directly.
Like any great artist, Chris Gwaltney gravitates toward what he relates to, taking what inspires him and incorporating it into his vocabulary. He has absorbed the lessons of Bay Area figuration, and by osmosis the lessons of Still and Hofmann, and has added his own twists, as well as a few from more contemporary artists like Basquiat. Gwaltney is at the point where he is fully in command of his medium, has refined his touch, and is casually and deceptively simple in his meaning. He is an artist that likes to push himself–to build on what he has done, discard it, and rebuild again–continually evolving, taking from his surroundings and from his life, and recasting it into something worthy of our attention.