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A conversation between artist Wally Whitehurst and Tessa Granowski
October 27, 2021

Tessa Granowski:  I'm sitting with Wally Whitehurst. It is Wednesday. Everything is starting with a W.  To get started, how long have you been working on this series of paintings?

Wally Whitehurst:  This group of paintings, about ten years. I started working on them when they moved to New York.

Installation of Wally Whitehurst, Summer 2019 at Brackett Creek Exhibitions

TG:  And how did they begin?

WW:  When I was living in Baltimore, I was making these really crazy expressionist paintings and throwing everything thing into them.

TG:  All of your emotions.

WW:  Not emotions, just garbage content. They were really collage-based and influenced by Albert Oehlen. And they never really resolved themselves. So I slowly started pulling them back a little bit. I'd introduced some geometric elements and I started focusing just on those. And it was a very gradual transition where I was making some collages and pulling them back.

TG:  You threw away all the magazines.

WW:  Yeah.

TG:  Did you paint over any of those paintings or destroy them?

WW:  I have a lot of the later, smaller ones. I don't even remember what I did with the bigger ones. I was making seven foot paintings.

TG:  What!?

WW:  I think they all just got destroyed. They were four or five, six or seven footers.

TG:  And what about this new series of drawings? How long have you been working on those?

WW:  About two years. Those started in the same vein as the paintings, mostly geometric. But after working on the mosaic at Matt's house, they started getting more freeform and abstract.

Tile mosaic floor at Matt’s house in Montana

TG:  Got it! It was the mosaic that kind of changed your paintings into your drawings! From my recent dabble in mosaic-ing, it was pretty interesting to take a fully formed object, break it apart and then reconstruct it in a new way where you have this consistent, limited color palette that you are working with and reconstructing.

WW:  Yeah. You have a limited palette, and you can't be too concerned with the whole. Everything is focused on what's next to it. Sort of a similar approach with the drawings. They're, like, a really zoomed-in, stoner mentality and I just get fully absorbed in the marks and just in responding to what's there.

Wally Whitehurst, Untitled, 2021, marker on paper, 22x29” (framed @ 28 x 35 x 1.5”)

TG:  Totally. So, when I kind of saw you working on the drawings in Montana, it seemed like you kind of had another routine integrated throughout your day. Sometimes you would pick up some stones and wheelbarrow them over to the cold pool or you would shoot a BB gun at some cans and return to drawing in between. Was it something where you're diving so far into those drawings, and it's such a stoner process, so you have to go do stuff in the real world a little bit, or how does that play into your practice?

WW:  I feel like being in Montana is like being at summer camp. Everything is too fun. So, I’ll just do a little bit of this, do a little bit of that. It's totally different than when I'm in New York and I can really only work on one thing at a time. I can get ideas to do other things, but I have to be hyper-focused on one project at a time. Otherwise, I can't get anything done. But out there in Montana, it's different.

TG:  It's the whole experience... Do you have any ideas for what's to come next?

WW:  Yeah, I think I'm going to go back to paintings. I think I'll probably always return to that form, with the idea of knowing what it's going to be, and having strict parameters.

TG:  Maybe we can talk a little bit about the edition silkscreen print you were making in Montana this past summer. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you made it and why you made it? Did it inform your practice in a new way after that?

WW:  Sure. That print started as an experiment. I knew I wanted to make an edition, but I didn't know what the print would be. So, I was just doing color studies to see how the inks would mix and how they would overlay—playing around with transparency. I just needed the grid, the screen of rectangles so I could test a bunch of colors in one screen.

Wally’s edition print screen drying

TG:  I was interested in that process because it was just one screen. And it almost makes you draw out that practice itself because you can’t move on to the next layer quickly. You have to wash out the screen, let it dry, think what these next colors will be. I feel like that becomes its own thing. And I feel like you don’t see the layering happening in screen printing, normally it’s about getting as close as possible to the next color.

Close-up of Wally’s silkscreen

WW:  Yeah, the results were interesting.

TG:  This was round one. And there’s more summer camp times to come.

Finished Wally prints drying on the side of the barn

TG:  How long have you been going out to Montana and what has that been like? You were one of the first friends of Matt’s to go out there.

WW:  I think I was out there the first summer that Matt was there, maybe four or five years ago. I remember I was doing a show at Trudi in LA when Matt went to look at the place and, after seeing photos, I told him I would definitely be there.

TG:  So the house was essentially a drafty barn originally, right? You’ve seen the transformation happen with the tiling, to what it is now.

WW:  Yeah, it was a crazy big cement floor before the mosaics.

TG:  And you even built a cold pool. How did you figure that out?

WW:  Well Matt and Rob [Kieswetter] had already built one years ago but it got washed out. It was one of many projects that Matt had.

TG:  Ah, so, pick your poison! And what about the mural that you painted? It wraps around three or four walls in the house, right? Have you painted murals before?

WW:  No, that was the first mural I’ve painted… as an adult.

TG: *laughs* What was your childhood mural?

WW:  I painted a Hudson River landscape at this park on the Hudson River. It’s still there apparently.

TG:  I need to go see it. A Wally landmark.

WW:  But yeah, the Matt mural was fun. It was one of the things that started the drawing process. Just in breaking out of the square and into free form. It’s still based off of a grid, but I had no plans for it. I wanted to make some more works with the same kind of mentality.

TG:  You were having to paint around corners, which was new, and it seems like you had to consider the multi-dimensional space.

Wally with his mural at Matt’s house in his edition sweatshirt

WW:  Yeah, it was over two visits that I worked on it. Just constantly painting and repainting the squares. You’d paint one down here and it would throw the whole thing off.

TG:  So, for your day job, you do a lot of set designing and painting in the Art Department for a TV show. Does that job ever tie into your practice, or do you have to put distance between the job and your own work?

WW:  I don’t consciously have to put distance. It’s so much tedious work that it feels like something completely separate. There are a lot of skills and knowledge of materials that I’ve gained. It’s always a problem-solving exercise, which is probably good. Using those muscles that I don’t always use.

TG:  You are definitely our go-to guy for patching walls in the gallery. I’ve been very grateful for your help all along the way. For completely transforming our landlord’s office to the New York gallery it is today. There’s that one rough patch on the wall by the window and I was like, I need to get out the sander and fix it, Wally-style.

Wally framing a Robert Kieswetter for our summer group show

TG:  So, you got a small loom for weaving not too long ago. Does textile ever play into your practice, à la Anni Albers?

WW:  Yeah, I did get a toy loom at one point.

TG:  A loom for babies! Where did you find that?

WW:  At a thrift store Upstate. Eventually I would like to take a class on weaving. Textiles are definitely an influence in my work.
Like textiles, there’s a tactility in the paintings. The surface of the paintings is really important. I use oil paint pretty “badly” to get that super matte surface. I mix the paint with straight thinner. It’s maybe not the best for the archival nature of the painting, but Ad Reinhardt did the same thing, and his paintings are still around, so I’m sure it’s fine. It might give conservators a headache.

TG:  Or even give you a headache while you are painting.

WW:  Yeah, I use the odorless which is probably better.

TG:  Do you want to talk a little bit about your use of color in your paintings? Do you ever choose the colors beforehand when you are making a painting? Obviously on your drawings, you have your bag of markers, maybe you stick to one bag.

WW:  I’ll usually start with something such as, I want to make a green painting today. And so I’ll start with the green that I want. And then from there it’s totally intuitive. I’ll find one color that I like and then building off of that, so then I’ll throw another one down. I’ll use coloraid paper sometimes just to work out a couple of relationships. But any planning that I do beforehand usually gets altered. The paintings are pretty layered. I keep throwing down colors until I get the right fit.

Wally Whitehurst, Untitled, 2019, oil on canvas, 18x20”

TG:  Got it. I wouldn’t have guessed that from seeing the paintings because they are so flat.

WW:  Sometimes I nail it the first round, but some others are pretty thick with layers.

TG:  And what about your mentality going into the studio? I recently learned that Agnes Martin needed to completely brain drain and clear hear head before she went in the studio.

WW:  I don’t have to, but I should. I haven’t been painting the last couple of years because I lost my studio. When I was making the paintings in the studio I would often do a meditation beforehand to chill out. It wasn’t every time, but definitely when I was at my best painting, I would do that.

TG:  You’d hit the mark the first round of painting.

WW:  Yeah, I’d be in the right headspace going into it. Sometimes you get in that mode where you are frustrated or stubborn and you just go through the motions whether it’s productive or not. Sometimes I think, well, I’m moving paint around, so I am being productive.

TG:  Yeah, even if those paintings that don’t work out as well.

WW:  Those are usually the paintings that have more layers. *laughs*

TG:  Right on. Thank you, Wally!