Managing editor Erin Post recently had this exchange with Issue #44 featured artist Ronald Walker. Here’s what he had to say about his style of Suburban Primitive art, his artistic inspirations, tips for securing gallery shows, and more.
You’ve said “Suburban Primitive” combines an interest in the origins and functions of art with life in the suburbs. This is an intriguing combination – can you talk more about what this means? How does it manifest in your art?
When I was at the University of Kansas working on my MFA degree I had a crisis of sorts concerning art. So many artists I knew were so concerned with the marketing aspects of art that I felt they were losing sight of the true value of art. I found myself thinking: “If making money is the end all of art, I don’t want to deal with it.” Rather than quitting I started to research the reasons art has been produced over time. Decoration is a biggie as is money, of course, but the artists making art for other reasons caught my attention. The reasons were quite varied, going from magic to survival. In a society that seems to often treat art as an extra, the survival function particularly caught my eye. The Dreamtime stories of the Australian Aboriginal people are reinforced by their paintings; written language was never developed. The paintings, often on items such as spears, served as a map combined with the stories for water holes. Not just where they are located but at what time of year they would have water as well. This information was absolutely vital to survival in such a harsh climate.
My conclusion to my search was that art’s primary purpose was communication. Art helps us make sense out of what often seems to be a senseless world. We are a primitive creature, by that I mean we are very much like our ancestors who walked the earth 20,000 years ago. We seek the same things: food, shelter, mates, coffee and chocolate. Yet modern man seems to be rather smug in their aura of superiority. We are advanced, civilized, somehow above and beyond nature. The suburbs, where I have spent most of my life, is a quiet, subdued, gentile life where civilization is at its peak, or so we would like to believe! In reality we are a delusional creature fresh from the cave. Anyone who doubts this only needs to go out to a nightclub on a Saturday night and observe the behavior of the various hominids hanging out there.
My work attempts to exist in the gap created by our image of ourselves as being civilized (Especially in the Suburbs) and our actual selfs ( Scared hominids fighting for survival in a harsh hostile world.) This gap allows me to exercise a fair amount of humor and whimsy though it is often not that funny.
How did you arrive at this style of art? How has it evolved over time?
Like many people who start out in art I first thought that the goal was to copy a photograph as closely as possible. I got reasonably proficient at this but soon grew bored, fortunately I discovered Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and most importantly for me Symbolism. The work of Paul Gauguin was especially important to me. His colors and compositions were powerful and helped lay out a direction for me to follow. Gauguin’s interest in non European art also resonated a chord with me. I was soon exploring primitive art, art of people who are mentally ill, children art, folk art, art that had been produced from the non mainstream art world. During this time I reduced the use of color and increased the size of the work. I was soon working on canvases that were tacked up on the wall that were up too 9’x 12’ in size consisting of black, white and browns. It was about 1996 and I started to refer to my work as “Suburban Primitive.” Due to the pressures of employment I started to reduce the size. Tacking
the canvases on the wall caused me to get use to a non-flexible surface. So when the size reduced I started to work on boards rather than canvas. I had always enjoyed color and it returned at this time as well.
Can you talk more about your process? How is a painting conceived and then executed? How long will you work on a piece?
My ideas for my work are almost always informed by an object or scene or experience I encounter in my daily existence. Once I have an idea I play with it through sketches, notes and sometimes photos. If the idea seems to have merit I will continue to play with it until it becomes either a painting or a drawing. Occasionally an idea might lead to a small group of paintings rather than a single entity. The actual painting starts out with a pencil drawing on the prepared board. Next color is added, somewhat similar to paint by number. At this point I start to build up layers of color using mostly dry brush. I equate this to playing chess since you have to be aware of how each layer will affect the next. With several layers this takes some visualization. I do not use black paint as I think it messes up the luminosity of the colors. At the end I work back into the painting with a black colored pencil to strengthen both lines and values within the work. Most of the time my work takes anywhere from two to three weeks from start to finish.
What do you like about gouache as a medium? Why did you make this choice?
I started out painting oil on canvas; however, after several years working with this medium I discovered I had lost my sense of smell to turpentine. This concerned me for health reasons so I switched to acrylic. I never was comfortable with them; they seemed just a bit artificial to me. About 15 years ago I discovered gouache. I loved the color and the way it allowed me to build up layers. There were, however, two problems: First was cracking, the slightest flex in the surface could bring this on. The second issue was water damage, a little moisture could cause severe havoc to the painting. The cracking issue was solved by working on boards since they do not flex. The water issue was resolved by my discovery of a product that was a acrylic/gouache hybrid. This product dries and becomes water resistant and as an added bonus it was more flexible so the possibility of cracking was minimized even more. It looks like and feels like traditional gouache so I feel quite fortunate – problems solved!
The color schemes you use are striking-they create an aura of whimsy that is also a bit unsettling. Like a dreamscape that doesn’t quite track with reality. How do you choose colors?
I do not have a strict approach when it comes to colors. I paint and think in layers, often thinking three or four layers at a time. How will the lower layers affect the top ones? Some of my preferred layer approaches are warm over cool, or cool over warm, dark value over light or light over dark, but I must confess I choose colors mostly by what feels right to me at the time.
Your biography from the Mahlstedt Gallery states that much of your work is autobiographical in nature. How so?
My work is always informed by instances and objects that I come into contact with in my daily life. Sometimes an object or experience might trigger a much earlier childhood memory or get me to think about a current issue. In any case my work always pertains to my life and experiences and so, by nature is autobiographical.
This biography also mentions how you see the internet as changing how art movements are born and sustained. Can you elaborate? What does this mean for the future of art in general?
Art movements are based on ideas. In the past the exchange of ideas between artists have mostly taken place in cities. The reason for this is the higher concentration of artist gathered in these areas where the artists exchange ideas and share images easily with one another. The rise of the internet has changed this dynamic dramatically. Now artists not only can exchange ideas but quality images as well nearly anywhere in the world. What this means is that the advantage artists have had living in the city has dissipated. I can’t truly say where this will lead as far as art movements are concerned, but I would think it would increase the diversity of input from a much more varied and deeper artist pool.
We’d love to know more about your background. Did you always know you always wanted to be an artist? How did you decide to pursue art as a career?
As a very young child I loved art but by the time I made it to high school had decided that not only was I not any good at it but disliked it as well. My first year of high school I had a terrible registration time and got stuck with an art class. I would like to say I loved the class and it changed my life, only it didn’t. I hated the class and vowed never to take another art class. Never say never, the next semester I got stuck with two art classes and this time something clicked. I not only enjoyed the classes but started to love art! By the time I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to be an artist. My father was an aeronautical engineer and had a strong practical side to him so instead of majoring in studio art I was an art education major.
Since I have taught art for 26 years I think this was a good idea, but I did go back to school twice after completing my original degree. I completed both a MA and a MFA in the next ten years. I have been working both as an art teacher and artist ever since. If there is a moral to the story I guess it would have to be that sometimes not getting what you think you want can be a very good thing!
What artists and writers inspire you?
Several artists and writers have inspired me over the years. Here are a few: Desmond Morris – his anthropological books have helped reinforce in my mind how modern man is just one small step away from our more primitive tribal selfs. Hunter S. Thompson just for pure craziness and an fresh way of viewing the world and Robert Heinlein for his ability to combine imagination with a technical scientific approach. Artist-wise I have already mentioned Gauguin but also Picasso for his studies of African art and his ability to recognize the power of non European art. Chaim Soutine, for his strength of color and brushwork but also for his use of distortion to heighten a feeling or expression within his work. Gerd Koch, who was one of my instructors, for his enthusiasm towards a wide variety of art forms and his dedication towards his own work. Margaret Peterson (Peg), another instructor of mine, for combining a very strange imagination with an unmatched technical mastery. Finally the study of “Outsider” art in which the usual rules and techniques employed by professional artists are often not used, leaving me with the thought “Why not?”
You’ve been featured in hundreds of exhibits, including 40 solo exhibits. It would be interesting to hear more from you about the “business” side of art. Do you have any tips for young artists looking to secure exhibits and gallery shows?
Listing some tips along these lines: 1. Get your work out there. I usually have several things going at once. 2. You will be rejected, don’t let this get you down. There are many reasons your work might get rejected but mostly it just does not fit into what they are looking for at that time. Don’t dwell on it just move on. 3. Keep on working to improve, you can and will get better with time. 4. Don’t be long winded when you contact a gallery or any showing space. Be concise and don’t waste their time. They are busy professionals and if they desire more information they will ask. 5. Take good photos of your work. If it looks like you don’t care about your work why should they? 6. Lastly, stay positive. You have a unique perspective to offer the world. Don’t quit – persevere.
What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
I feel that at some level all life is interconnected. These connections fascinate me and are at the core of what I wish to communicate. Animal, human, young, old, male, female, city, rural or suburbs, everyone is on the same voyage. It is my hope that the viewer might find something they relate to and make their own personal connection to my work.