Interview with Clay Vorhes
by David Cooke
David Cooke: Your newest still life series uses cheese as a central theme. Can you comment on that?
Clay Vorhes: Well, I love food. Last year I took a trip to Europe solely to visit museums to pursue my painting pursuits. I spent a week in London's Courtauld and National Gallery and a full week at the Madrid's Prado and Thyssen museums. Equally impressive. All day every day. There is no substitute to viewing works in person in an effort to understanding what the painter was trying to accomplish and how they got to the finished product. You just can't capture that from printed or computer images. They die in reproduction.
I became consumed by the beauty of the breakfast and dinner displays wherever we ate. The Europeans hold the value of food at such an elevated level...we Americans have much to learn. Anyway, those cheese, meat and bread spreads were as beautiful as the paintings I'd been looking at. I sketched them at breakfast, lunch, cocktail hour and dinner...even in my room at night and early mornings!
Well, I got home and went directly to the easel. No sleep, grab the brush and go. Cheese it was. I didn't unpack for three weeks...my wife was none too pleased!
D.C.: I see a lot of Spanish painters like Velazquez, Goya, Zurbaran, even Picasso in this series.
C.V.: Yes indeed, all of them. Murillo, Cotan, Juan Gris, Sorolla. Also, Louis Melendez...he is so abstract, I've never seen anybody paint still life's like that. Simply Wonderful. I spent 3 hours alone in the Prado with twenty-odd Melendez paintings. It was so deep in the museum, the security guards didn't even venture back for fear of wearing their soles down! Also a fabulous painter I discovered was Isabel Quintanilla. I love her work. Outside of Spain, no one knows her...she's terrific. Those famous non-Spanish ones as well...Matisse, Manet, Gaugin, Peto, and of course Cezanne.
D.C.: I've seen your new series twice. Seeing the works now is so different than seeing them a year ago. They were very dark...very little color other than lots of blacks and browns. They were very loose and mysterious. Now, although still primarily painted in browns, they are loaded with color highlights and splashes sneaking in here and there. I assume the color additions were a conscious decision. Were you unhappy with the earlier versions or were they early in process.
CV: Well, when you first saw them they were quite green, meaning immature. But no, the color additions happened organically. I think it comes from living in California. Those little hints and obvious dashes of color just crept in on their own. When you start to paint a painting it's all yours, but somewhere along the way you reach a point where, like your kid, it takes on its own personality and against your will, pulls in its own direction. At that point, you lose control and have to follow the demands the painting is requiring of you. I steer it and try to keep it within normal boundaries, but it goes where it goes. That's when color, time and tempo brings the work on the road to maturation. Again, like a child, you hope it matures into a respectable being of beauty and positively contributes to our world.
D.C.: Along those lines, a lot of things in your paintings don't make sense. For instance there will be a highly refined cheese wedge next to an abstract chunk. A cool color next to a warm. It doesn't make sense in reality, but it works in your paintings. Why is that?
C.V.: I don't know. It doesn't always work! Remember, it's a painting not taxidermy. Sometimes those opposites are intentional other times not. I love contradictions and mystery in paintings. In my final work, what you see is what I want you to see. It may not have happened on purpose, but what remains is supposed to be seen. There is nothing there I don't want the viewer to see...it might be ugly but it must be there to make the painting work. So much just happens when one paints. The happy accidents are the best. I learn from them...good, bad or otherwise...regardless, if it's good it stays. If it's bad then it goes. There is a lot of going in my work (laughs).
D.C.: You said you sketched a lot at meals. Are these paintings drawn from life? What was your process?
C.V.: All the paintings started form sketchbook ideas and thoughts. There were several visits to cheese shops and deli counters in Europe and California...San Francisco, Sacramento, Napa and Sonoma. Great places near Santa Barbara as well. Love it there. Took some photos, sketched and composed water colors all on sight. I worked compositionally first. Abstract to finite. Big to small. Wedges turn to slices, to rounds and back again as the individual painting requires. While the compositions took form, I bought cheese from the store to add an extra element of realism to the painting component and painted from life. That's problematic...the cheese disappears...into my belly...I gotta paint fast!
Clay Vorhes creates paintings that skirt the line between representation and abstraction. When seen from afar, these arresting images seem like nonobjective compositions. The network of lines that thrust across each canvas harks back to the taut, haunting geometries of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. As one moves closer, however, it soon becomes clear that these paintings are populated by small figures that hang, leap and suspend precariously from the linear frame. These people are performers—acrobats, divers, gymnasts and dancers.
In visual terms, these figures provide accents that offer relief from the stark scaffold of lines. They punctuate the compositions, creating a cadence of organic points and counter-points. In human terms, these figures function as ready access points to the paintings, making inert geometry seem vital and alive. We identify with these diminutive figures. They draw us into the work, pulling us into the narrative by allowing us to marvel at their feats of daring. The French novelist and critic Michel Butor once spoke of the need for artists to ‘populate’ painting. Vorhes does this literally by turning abstraction into a world full of people who lead lives of precarious balance—just like us.
Michael Zakian, Director
Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art