Scott Greenwalt

Oakland, Painter // October 2012
There is actually something hopeful in my work— there’s an acknowledgement that things can go through monumental shifts, and that process might be difficult or even destructive, but out of it something new is formed.

Scott’s work rarely begins with sketches; instead he comes to the canvas with just a vague image in mind and dives right in. While chatting with him in his West Oakland home studio he said he enjoys the process of starting a new painting– when forms begin to take shape and details emerge and develop. After this initial stage, it’s all about sorting out compositional issues. Scott acknowledged that because he doesn’t sketch beforehand, he often finds himself confronted with formal challenges that need lots of work to resolve— and still resolution isn’t always within grasp. But as he matter-of-factly-put it, sometimes I just have to make the decision to ‘learn something.’ In that simple statement is the recognition that some issues just aren’t readily fixed, but that sometimes our failures are more valuable than our successes.

In his studio, Scott showed us a piece that for all intents and purposes was finished, but he just wasn’t happy with it. He tried to explain exactly why the piece wasn’t right, but I don’t think he had completely figured it out yet and so his explanations came out more like musings. He let Klea and I spend time with it— we got up close, stood further back for a different viewpoint, and walked away and came back. It was a brave and remarkable thing for Scott to give us so much time with a piece he wasn’t feeling 100% about.

Mistake-making is key to any creative process and I’m always curious about how people handle their missteps. I’ve certainly never been terribly good at it– I’m neither patient nor forgiving of myself, and I find it difficult to approach both shortfalls and achievement with the same steady tolerance. So, I’m impressed when I encounter someone who seems to be taking it all in stride and has enough foresight and maturity to draw lessons out from what could be considered a loss. In a way, the content of Scott’s work mirrors his process— in both there is a constant reckoning with unexpected upsets, moments of disorder, and unstoppable shifts, and yet also a keen desire to find value in these difficult but transformative states.

What mediums do you work with?
Primarily, I make painting and drawing based work. I work in other forms, such as audio, video and installation, but I have put these other kind of explorations on the backburner for the last few years to really zero in on a satisfying painting practice.

The work on paper is usually ink, gouache and acrylic gouache. For the most part, I paint on canvas and panel with acrylics.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I have described it previously as capturing a moment of transformation. In simple terms, they are like snapshots of an explosion or an implosion. I was recently looking at photographs of molten rock, which is similar in a way to the subject of my work. For a time, what we think of as very solid or rigid, takes on a mutable state, which has this potential to form something new.

I do have a macabre sensibility but I don’t think of my work as necessarily having doomsday implications. I render these moments of transformation in a language drawn from the craft of horror because in general I think people are scared of change and the unknown, but there is actually something hopeful in my work— there’s an acknowledgement that things can go through monumental shifts, and that process might be difficult or even destructive, but out of it something new is formed.

Your work deals with transformations, the grotesque, and a disrupted (or skewed) natural order of things— do you have particular sources of inspiration that you consistently turn to?
Yes, there are certain works that I revisit constantly. Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon are two in particular that seem to resonate most strongly with me and I return to over and over. Bosch created such a dense world, populated with incredibly bizarre characters and atmosphere. Bacon just got right to the marrow of paint and the human animal. I also find myself frequently reviewing the work of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Ralph Steadman, all of whom depicted the more horrifying aspects of humanity rather succinctly.

I just watched John Carpenter’s The Thing again, which features the brilliant work of Rob Bottin that has continued to be a touchstone for my ideas. The sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Arnold Toht’s face melts off is another cinematic moment etched in my mind, as well as the various states of decay and physical transformation that were so masterfully executed by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf in London. Sci-Fi films from the late 70’s and early 80’s have been significantly influential to my aesthetic, perhaps more so than traditional art history.

Cartoons are another big influence. I have always been really attracted to those moments in cartoons when a few sweeping lines and elements of the figure stand in for some quick change or spastic action. I also love the way fluid is depicted in 2-D animation; it is often very painterly and beautiful. The background paintings frequently bend rules in some pretty interesting ways, as well.

How do you start a painting? Do you plan things out first and make some preliminary sketches? And if so, how closely do you stick to the sketches?
I usually have a vague idea of what I am trying to depict when I start a painting, but I rarely make sketches. I have an image in mind at the outset, but what occurs on the canvas is all improvised, and highly subject to change throughout the process. One of the reasons that I have taken to setting these transformational phenomenon within a more traditional landscape, rather than in front of a dark backdrop, is to sort of ground myself and the viewer in a somewhat familiar location where these absurd things occur. In a similar way, I am using the basic idea of the human head as a loose framework to hang various substances from when I work on a dark ground.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I don’t really consider the work to be autobiographical, but there are certainly very real transformations that I have experienced personally that are drawn upon in an idiosyncratic mythology. In one respect, they reflect my constant questioning of existing rules and traditions. It’s like dismantling a complex system and laying all of the component parts on the floor to inventory, analyze and examine their relationships, then put all the parts back together in some new arrangement that has completely different intentions. Kind of like building a machine from the spare parts of several unrelated machines. I look at philosophy, religion, politics, cults and culture in a similar manner, as anyone might, taking from each what might be useful and applying it, experimentally, to my own perception of myself, others and the systems that we exist in. Sometimes these odd combinations work, and sometimes they fail, but hopefully they teach me something about how to better build the next one, metaphorically speaking.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now?
There have been a number of things, quitting a full-time job to focus on art was pretty important. That led to examining everything that I had done and an eventual realization that it could all come together in this exciting way, these disparate ways of mark making and various visual elements all playing off of one another.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I currently work part-time doing in-home support for an adult with cognitive disabilities. The work is definitely interesting, and it doesn’t interfere very much with my studio time.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I react well to having room to move around and having a big wall to work on has made expanding the scale of my paintings more comfortable. One of my interests is playing with objects in space. Letting things talk to each other slowly over time, without much concern for what these objects represent by their proximity, but how they communicate with each other. Similar things happen within each painting, so having space to work on several at once allows me to sort of survey these myriad goings-on from painting to painting and think about how they correspond and that informs my decision making.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I have a clean slate right now, having just finished several exhibits this summer. There are quite a few new canvases getting underway, which is always very exciting.

How do you navigate the art world?
Broken compass, magic flashlight, sonar.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I like what Christian Rex van Minnen and Amir Fallah have been doing quite a lot, and I am a big fan of Glenn Brown as well as Lari Pittman. There are scores of painters and artists working in other media that I draw inspiration from. Whether there is a dialogue there, I’m not sure. I see a lot of movement in visual art to further certain explorations made during the 20th century, through a 21st century lens, which is vast and interesting terrain to cover, but if we look further back over all of the changes in painting over the centuries through a 21st century lens, the conversation becomes more compelling to me.

What do you want your work to do?
If possible, I want it to be surprising and intriguing. I hope that with each successive viewing my work becomes more interesting— I want it to be simultaneously strange and beautiful, and for it to present unanswered questions.

Do you have a motto?
Not really a motto, but I do tend to frequently mutter something like “that doesn’t make any sense” followed shortly by “none of this makes sense, why let ‘logic’ get in the way now” – sort of like the William S. Burroughs’ notion that “nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

Scott is currently between projects, so the best place to view his work is on his website: