Ted Gahl

Ted Gahl Interview - By Stuart Lorimer

HUNTED PROJECTS presents a fantastic and inspiring discussion between New York based artists Stuart Lorimer and Ted Gahl.

Ted Gahl is a painter from Connecticut.  His paintings traverse a myriad of approaches and attitudes.  Art and history and experience and reflection and amity and humor walk across Gahl's paintings and their contrail is lovely, confusing and hopeful.  Ted lives and works in Connecticut and shows, among other places, at DODGE Gallery in the Lower East Side.

Stuart Lorimer: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your creative background?

Ted Gahl: I was born in 1983 in New Haven, Connecticut. I drew a lot as a child, and my parents would take me to these painting classes at this old woman’s house in the next town over. I still have this painting of a turtle that I did with her, it was done on this heavy slab of stone.

My dad definitely influenced me, and supported me when it came to painting and drawing. His father was a sweet guy, but a very strict German that wouldn’t allow him to become an artist. So, he went into advertising at a young age, and he has been doing that kind of work for over forty years.  My mother isn’t very artistically inclined, but for some reason, she can draw a really good Fred Flintstone.

When I got to high school, I took the basic art classes, but it wasn’t a particularly stimulating environment. I specifically remember my art teacher telling me “With your attitude and no AP classes, you’ll never get into art school.” While hearing that at the time bummed me out, I still think about it a lot, and it helps fuel the fire to keep progressing. In retrospect, it was a good thing to hear, I guess.

I got my BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York in 2006, and went to Rhode Island School of Design for my MFA, where I finished in 2010.

I like making paintings and drawings. I like looking at other paintings and drawings, and I enjoy meeting the people that make them.

Do you think of your work as a response to your surroundings and by that I suppose I’m asking how biographical do you consider your art?

TG: I’d say that most of my imagery is a response to my surroundings. But I guess unless you’re making completely abstract imagery, every painter’s work is a response to their surroundings, and is in some way or another a biographical gesture. Even the work out there that is completely abstract has to be derived from something. If the painting is just five strokes of green, I’m assuming you like the color green. Or maybe you don’t. Either way, that presentation is saying something about you, about your choices. Paintings to me are the biography of a painter, just not in the form of a resume or a PDF. It is a clear and tangible indication of what they were doing and seeing, suspended in time. You’re looking at a performance that you weren’t there to witness yourself. What is more biographical than that?

When I paint, I think I establish a distance between the thought and the description - a sort of unintended ambiguity or veil.  Your paintings seem more generous.  Less inhibited by subject.  In representation it’s easy to find a descriptive reference to time or place.  But in a practice like yours, that moves between many modes and styles, the idea of narrative, sentiment, or sense of biography become more abstract. 

These are muddy distinctions I’m trying to make, but I suppose I’m saying that there is an inherent biographical allure to working with representation, and a more ambiguous, even perverse appeal in abstraction. I get concerned that slipping between the two can be a sort of double negative, but feel dependent on both.  The abstraction feels like a trip, the representational like a journal.  I think this is evident in your painting too.

TG: Totally. I think it can definitely be a strange path to navigate, but it is one I am going to stay dedicated to. There will always be split camps that argue to stick with one or the other, but I enjoy what I do, and that is what is important to me. I also think that in this timeframe, more than ever, painters and sculptors are making phenomenal work in this mode, hybrid, whatever you want to call it. Come to think of it, artists have always been making work in this mode. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner comes to mind. Whistler made paintings that were, what look to me, like Rothko’s before Rothko. The only difference is that a lot of them would have a very quick gesture of a figure in one corner or another. DeKooning didn’t do so bad in this category either.

I’m interested in the history that permeates your work.  There is a familiarity to the objects and vignettes you paint.  There is sense of nostalgia and a romantic image of the artist’s studio. The title of your show at Dodge last year: Night Painter evoked that time when the hard-boiled feelings of the day give way to reflection.  I’m thinking a lot here about the Red Studio by Matisse and the romantic image of the studio through history.  The show title and some of the smaller paintings exhibited brought to mind Raoul De Keyser who painted from his studio window his entire career.  In the boats, beaches and churches you’ve painted I appreciate the yearning for a sort of escape backwards through history and painting and the studio.  I don’t think it touches on kitsch but is maybe somewhat ironic.  How do you reconcile your paintings with your influences and the history you (amorously) evoke?

TG: I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I think a lot of artists are, and that’s fine. That’s not what intrigues me. What intrigues me about painting is how old it is. Painting and drawing isn’t 30 years old, it’s been around since the beginning of time. People, houses, churches, and boats are all things that I have been looking at and trying to depict since I was a child. They are also the same things that people were looking at and depicting in the 1500’s, and that idea, that connection, will never not fascinate me.

Those ideas and subjects are all still alive and well. I pine for paintings of the past, but I also pine for paintings I saw this week in New York being done by people my age.

I don’t think that what I am making is rooted in irony. I’m not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. I make paintings in 2012, therefore they are contemporary by default. The fact that they share palettes and subjects of past paintings is more of an homage, a tip of the hat to simpler times and imagery, than anything else. Also, I suppose I could paint iPhones and computers in my work to make them more relevant to my generation, but I don’t want to see an iPhone in a painting. I would rather see some boats.

I think painters can learn a lot from looking at the work that Raoul de Keyser has left us. I see a lot of painting being done by really young people who seem to think they are ahead of the curve by doing this off-the-cuff, simple abstract style of painting that is popular. I’m not pointing fingers, I am guilty of this at times as well, and I love that stuff. All I am saying is that it is nice someone like Raoul de Keyser has come up in conversation more in the last decade, and unfortunately, even more so with his passing. This was an artist that stayed the course, did not waver, and who a lot of people owe some gratitude to, whether they know it or not.

In some of your small paintings, I’m interested in the exformation of the image and the  “object-ness” of the work. You reduce paintings to materials, adhering objects (paint caps, stretcher keys) to the canvas and find pathos and humility in a button or mending plate.  This pathos I associate with much of your work. Compared with your large multilayered paintings these are more sardonic.  Can you talk of how when the work is not directly figurative, it still has a certain humility and character?

TG: I think your read on that work is how almost everybody looks at art. Every painting or sculpture I look at, I try to find some sort of human form. A face, a hand, an eye. My mother readily admits that she doesn’t know much about contemporary art, but that doesn’t stop her from finding snakes, highways, and vines when I show her a Brice Marden painting. There is a plethora of memes and jpegs on the Internet that show coat hooks and old doorknobs that look like faces. I think it is in our subconscious to look for and recognize these cues; it’s a part of our human nature.

I think when I make the paintings, this idea is being manifested, with or without my direct intention. This work also stems from a fascination with the idea of inanimate objects possessing personalities.

Sometimes a triangle is a sailboat, and other times, a triangle is a pyramid. Sometimes, a triangle is just a triangle.

Sometimes in the studio I realize that a seemingly abstract gesture or fiction I’ve developed has become surprisingly homogenized and repetitive.  Do you find ways to avoid a fiction generated in a studio? Do you ever think about the justification of your imagery? For instance: when I work figuratively – I can get hung-up on the antiquated idea of a certain diligence/practice I associate with figurative painting; working from a model, having a specific narrative impulse, an approach I don’t want to engage.  Or, when I’m writing occasionally I’ll start with a word or a phrase I want to use and form points and structure around those words.  It’s like wanting to use a new color and that color being the start of a painting as opposed to a story or image or whatnot.  When you start painting are you working from an image you have in your head, story, memory or observation.  How do you start? …and harder still: finish?

TG: It sounds pretty cliché, but I think the antidote to this common problem (subject matter) for painters is drawing more. That, along with reading and traveling, helps me when I’m going in circles. Traveling gets me out of my studio, which means it becomes more practical to draw. Combining that with reading and taking photos, and it is like refilling a visual bank. I actually need to make an effort to employ this system more often, especially in the winter. Some of the best drawings I have done in the last few years were made on a couch in Chicago and finished at the airport.

I rarely plan out paintings, as far as laying down an image in graphite or gridding, etc., I will look at multiple drawings (stories, memories, observations- yes) and other works I have done, and will piece together a composition that I like. The surprises, happy accidents, and miniature epiphanies that happen along the way are my drug of choice. The high school I attended used to have a phrase for what I am describing: “Private Victories.”

As far as finishing a painting, that is something I’m still figuring out. I definitely have a tendency to over-do some work, and then I look back and wonder, “Why did I do that?” I think there is a reason the term “Less is more” has been around for so long. It’s applicable in so many different contexts. Anyway, it’s just another skill to hone (finishing a painting).

Ted Gahl

All images courtesy of Dodge Gallery