Chuck Webster. Untitled. oil on panel. 29 3/4 × 39 1/2 inches. Photos courtesy of Steven Zevitas Gallery.
I met with Chuck Webster in his studio last week to talk about painting, and his process of painting. We covered content, context, object, and material, and the unique transformation that happens between material and painting.
Samuel Jablon Are you taking risks with these paintings?
Chuck Webster I am working both fast and slow. I am trying to combine what I was doing in paintings five years ago with what I was doing in the spring. I want to make things that have a long history, and then have marks that are instant and spontaneous. It is as though something has been polished and given a patina of history, and then renewed—worked and worked, and then finished quickly—as though I am making a long, long preparation for a few moments of free, innocent play. (A small debt to Philip Guston’s words acknowledged here.)
SJ When does one of your paintings have an authentic quality, when do you know it’s your work?
CW I put about four or five things in each painting, and two or three of them do not live to see the end. The work becomes authentic when those irrelevant things cancel themselves out and the work has only what it really needs. It sheds off a false skin to become what it really is.
Chuck Webster. Untitled. oil on panel. 60 × 72 inches.
SJ I like the idea that your paintings shed skins. Do you have any overriding themes in your new works?
CW The only theme I can think of is that I am reaching the edge of the canvas. I want the pictures to have an internal structure and rhythm. I want to engage the picture plane—I want to make a sacred object, a narrative actor, a story and an abstract picture at the same time. I try to keep track of all these variables as the picture progresses.
SJ As a painter, do you believe in the painting as object, or the painting as concept?
CW I think the idea and the picture need to be one total experience for the viewer. Pictures have to be an embodiment of the idea while still remaining clear. Ideas for me come from the activity, from the evidence of putting down marks and removing them. I have to work my way through a number of ideas before the painting reveals itself to me. I believe in the transformation that happens there, with the materials and on the picture. My concept of making resides in that miracle, the awareness that starts to happen when something is made from raw material through time. Those things are one and the same: a picture is the concept. As it starts to transform, it creates new energy in the world and therefore its own version of form and narrative.
Chuck Webster. Untitled. oil on panel. 30 1/2 × 39 1/2 inches.
SJ Final question. Could you talk about your approach to material, and how you apply it on your paintings?
CW I used to have piles of pencils, pastels, watercolors, and paint arranged by color on my 2002 drawing table. Now my approach to materials has gotten even more open-ended, and things are flowing. Anything works—spray paint, markers, oil bars, pencil, ink, acrylic, and good old Old Holland and Williamsburg paint. I’ve been using these R and F pigment sticks that just collapse into a soft paint bomb. They are great. It’s really been fun. I have been doing lots of sanding and scraping with knives, getting a beautiful surface and then scraping it off. I go through boxes of razor blades. They give good control. I just got this 3-foot brush, which is a trip and great for a change in scale.
Chuck Webster in his studio.