In the world of a Caleb Weintraub painting, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Stern-faced, costume adorned children run rampant with no apparent boundaries, tracking down the last remaining adults and turning them into wall-mounted trophies of the hunt. In his recent body of work titled Whatever Shall We Do with these Piles and Piles of Paint?, currently on view at the Peter Miller Gallery in Chicago, the artist introduces a new antagonist, the amorphous pile of paint. An MFA graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Weintraub has risen to success exhibiting with galleries such as Jack the Pelican Presents in New York, Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston, SC, and Projects Gallery in Philadelphia.
In a recent interview with DailyServing.com, Caleb discussed the future the children, the meaning of the pile, and the afterlife of painting.
DailyServing: So Caleb, the title of the your new exhibition at the Peter Miller Gallery in Chicago poses the question “Whatever shall we do with these Piles and Piles of Paint?” I am curious about the meaning of this question, both from the point of view of a character in your painting as well as for you, the painter?
Caleb Weintraub: On one level it’s about the death of painting… or maybe I should say the afterlife of painting.
The paint piles are Painting Itself. The characters in my paintings recognize the piles as proto-versions of themselves; the stuff of which they and their world are made – only here they appear in their most pure form, as raw and unblended color. At first, the children see these piles as a threat, and they set out to destroy them. The piles are hunted, hanged from gallows, caged, stabbed, eviscerated; They are lugged from the battlefield and buried in the earth.
The piles of paint serve as reminders of the fragility, instability and magic of creation. They are the unknown incarnate. At a point in time during which painting as a means of communication and expression may no longer be relevant to the broader society, these paint piles beg us to consider the fact of their impotence. Faced with the threat of oil painting being or becoming obsolete, the children in my paintings lug around the piles awaiting further direction.
Within the paintings, the threat is immediate, the question is literal. Beyond their world, the piles signify a further dilemma. They represent the accrued matter of our pasts, our histories, our traditions, our rituals and loyalties… our baggage. It is as if the perceived threat against painting is a threat against humanity itself. Paintings recall a time in the west when religion, literature, and intimacy reigned. In today’s computer-driven world, the priority rests on connectivity and global community. The characters in my work ask, “Where do we belong? Is there a place for us? Is there a place for this? For painting? For tradition? Can we, must we erase it all? How do we reconcile the richness of this inheritance with its apparent obsolescence? Our vulnerability to sentiment, with a world that seems to want only to move forward at all costs?”
But, by the death of painting I don’t really mean that I think painting is useless, I only mean that is not a prevailing genre in visual culture, and that’s no secret. It’s been in afterlife mode for decades now, maybe longer.
We don’t have unveilings of paintings as there were in the days of the salon. In those days, people would travel really far to catch a glimpse of a painting. Back then, paintings had a very real potential to effect social and political opinion and were known to play a role in shaping, even changing people’s convictions. Today we see similar results from movies, documentaries, television shows, music videos and fashion. Painting is only a single facet of a complex and elusive beast that is visual art.
I don’t doubt that there will always be tormented souls shivering in cold studios with a box of colors and a piece of paper, trying to make something happen. I also don’t doubt that there will always be people to buy those items and put them on their walls or sit over them in the company of their friends scrutinizing the work with genuine enthusiasm. But, all this only proves that painting exists – in order for something to be truly alive, it has to thrive, reproduce and affect its surroundings. Whether painting is up to the challenge, remains a question. But ultimately, I don’t really care because I like everything about painting. I like to look at paintings and I like to make paintings, even if , maybe especially when, they are chock full of anachronisms.
DailyServing: Have you found a new creative or narrative freedom from the introduction of these amorphous paint blobs as your antagonist?
Caleb Weintraub: For sure. It allows me to use paint as paint right in the environment of this imagined world. I can literally squeeze it out of the tube, right onto the painting. I like it because of the richness of color, the luster of its surface, and the way the marks exist in real space. I like it because it makes sense in the image and because it makes sense to my eye. It can remain in that state without having to be turned into anything more.
In terms of content and picture, the paint piles provide a more palatable victim than my former adult subjects. It’s easier to look at an inanimate thing suffering abuses, becoming impaled or being in some other way corrupted, than it is to look at the smoldering remains of a disemboweled adult – no matter how idiotic his mustache, or how pink and bloated he may be. The piles allow for the possibility of subtlety and beauty without having to compromise my aesthetic of chaos, keyed-up color and over stimulation.
The paint piles also give me an opportunity to make some works with a more graphic or non-pictorial goal in mind. I like to have illusionistic properties and flat color properties appear together in almost every painting. It’s like I have an equation, maybe 83% to 17% illusionism to artificiality or the other way around. In paintings that take place in a mostly naturalistic setting, the piles of paint, splashes and spills, serve as the graphic color component, the flat part, the artificial. In the more graphic interpretations of the piles, the equation is reversed and the naturalistic element takes on the supporting role. So, a paint pile that is otherwise exclusively abstract and decorative might be pricked with naturalistic arrows that drop trompe l’oeil shadows across the piles of paint.
I’ve also turned some piles into sculptures. Right now the sculptures are single pieces; I’m interested in the possibilities of bringing figures into three dimensions too and having them interact with the paint pile as they do in the paintings. Basically, I want to bring some of the painted world to life. I’ve got a pretty clear idea of how it might look and it involves lots and lots of white glitter-dust. I like glitter.
DailyServing: When talking about your previous work you have stated that visually the volume was turned up so that you may “Tug people’s ears now in order to whisper to them later.” Do you feel that a more subtle body of work is on the horizon or do you feel that you will be tugging ears for a while longer?
Caleb Weintraub: The distant horizon. I’m getting closer. Every time I think I may be settling in for something more quiet and refined, I find myself being hauled in by an urge to tweak the painting in a way I hadn’t foreseen. Sometimes, I can’t deny the intention to provoke.
So, the answer is yes, soon, maybe even today, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I don’t censor myself in the studio, and I really mean that. I make plans for my work but often the work has plans for me.
DailyServing: I am curious about your personal life and how it relates to the life of the characters in your paintings. I know that you now have 3 sons under the age of 4. What role does fatherhood play in the construction of your ongoing narrative? Do you use the characters in your paintings as metaphor for your own life questions and dilemmas?
Caleb Weintraub: Yes. No. Maybe so.
I don’t really know how to answer this. I think the questions that I’m trying to raise are big questions, and not many people will access them or even care to once they do. I see the questions as existing outside my immediate life.
Whatever the paintings mean or don’t mean, they are mostly a way for me to do something I can’t help but do, to make things with my hands, to act like I know what I’m talking about when really all I care to do is to make images, to try to paint a person to look like she/he might really be breathing… because I like magic. There’s something impressive when it works and it is fun to make something exist that wasn’t there before.
The characters in my paintings relate to my questions about the role of humanity on some level. What I do is fairly indulgent. I can’t say it exactly helps anyone, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. There are a lot of things in our world like that, in our behaviors and routines. The characters in my paintings embody some of these questions, and in that way, they relate to me.
But painting isn’t a means of therapy or exorcism for me, it really doesn’t relate to my daily life in that way. Now and before fatherhood it has always seemed that most problems can be solved with common sense and surrounding myself with other people who have more common sense. My paintings and the characters in them have their own issues to deal with, and they can’t help me much. In a lot of ways I probably can’t help them either. They are kind of on their own in there, as am I.
In any case, the children in my paintings are not actually children. They’ve always represented more the future than actual beings. I’m not all that interested in painting real children though I may begin to look more and more at my own children as sources for the characters in my work, provided that the paintings don’t deal with anything really hideous or disconcerting.
My lifestyle is kind of a testament to the fact that I’m not the nihilist one might think by taking a casual look at my work. I’m really conventional – wife, job, family, house in the suburbs. I even own a minivan and some kind of hedge-clipper thing, and I don’t think I’m brain dead because of it. Some people feel that they have to be tortured or act tortured to make art worth looking at, but I don’t feel that way. As far as I’m concerned to make art all a person has to do is learn how to think and then care to respond. The dilemmas I deal with in my paintings are big dilemmas, they are everyone’s dilemmas, and they’re the ones that paintings won’t solve but awareness might.
DailyServing: I am aware that the narrative in your paintings has been going on for several years now. So, it peaked my interest when I saw the work titled “Finally, A Finale.” Explain what is happening in this scene? Is this to be interpreted as an actual finale to this ongoing story, or are you simply closing one chapter in a much larger book?
Caleb Weintraub: I’d like to say that any one work could provide closure.
In this case. it’s simply the title to that drawing which really belongs to my last body of work, one that took place when the adults were still roaming around, being gathered and nullified. The event in this drawing is a show. The children have packed a theatre and put on a performance and now it is time for the finale, for what the audience has been waiting for and perhaps what we are all always waiting for. At center stage, adults are bound to a tall pyre that has been recently ignited. There is no recitation; there is no ritual or conviction. There is only death with bells and whistles.
The drawing refers to our familiar interest in the mortally grotesque. Throughout history there were public tortures and executions, deadly stunts, and competitive contests that involved death, but here the killing is for the sheer purpose of entertainment, there is no score to be settled, there is no political disagreement or religious grudge.
This performance may symbolize the root of all performances, our instinct to rubberneck at accidents, to stare at physical anomalies, to secretly hope for car crashes in races and mortal wounds in boxing matches, and even for politicians to misspeak in a way that will render them dead to the world of politics. In our world we dress up our sex and violence for the sake of decorum, we work hard to build up stories, moral lessons, redeemable character traits even when there is some admitted suspicion that all this is only a smokescreen or to build up anticipation for when the bomb will finally drop. In our world, we candy coat and look the other way, in the world of the drawing there is no other way, they cut to the chase.
It’s everything I just said but it starts out with the simple thought that “hey, I really want to do a charcoal drawing of a big old pyre that’s starting to explode – it’ll have dark cavities and lines going everywhere,” then the narrative emerges. It’s like lyrics in music. Hopefully the song will operate whether or not a listener fully understands or cares about the lyrics.
So, in terms of the finale… if anything it isn’t the end of the narrative, it may represent the end of the chapter with the adults as the stated victim of the children. There are others that might fall into that category though, “Last Man Parade” is a painting where the children are parading through town with the very last man at the head of the procession looking pretty old and tired and worn out. He’s a trophy and a spectacle at the end of an era. After that, there are some pieces that show the adults as mounted trophy heads. At last their not much more than a memory on the wall.
I don’t know how long this narrative will go on, I expect there will be some kind of closure at some point. I’m a romantic so I hope it’ll be a good one… I mean a happy one. For real.
DailyServing: You just stated that you don’t know how long this narrative will go on, but tell me, do you have a sense as to what may happen next? Any clues that you can leave us with?
Caleb Weintraub: I think the children may try to understand the piles of paint… the piles of paint may begin to form people, places worlds right before the eyes of the children. The children may be amazed. Pleasantly surprised. They may grow to understand them. The paint piles may be cause for a new beginning for something more fantastic, less bleak, and somehow more over-the-top. But not yet. Right now they are right in the thick of it.
DailyServing: It seems as if both an interest in art history and contemporary culture help to inform your work. What are your main sources of inspiration right now, both artistically and culturally?
Caleb Weintraub: I am interested in Rubens right now. I think you can tell which parts of the paintings he did and which parts he had his apprentices fill in. People sometimes think he’s all fluff – I thought so for a long time – but, he’s won me over. I think he had a soul after all. I’m also a real sucker for pageantry and drama and Rubens serves all that up in spades and heaps and puts on a real show. That also suits me right now. Sometimes, I have sort of a low tolerance for subtlety, as you may imagine.
I recently saw a show in NYC by a painter named Daniel Heidkamp. The work was large paintings based on Polaroid’s of people in open relationships. He did a great job of exposing their vulnerability, even guilt beneath wide smiles that should have been gushing with pride. Some of them looked seriously predatory, others just looked fragile and hopelessly unattractive. It was a good show, funny and effective.
I’ve also been looking at Kim Keevers, the photographer. Alexander Mcqueen did a 3d hologram thing with Kate Moss a few months ago… it was beautiful, kind of dripping with cheese, but undeniably captivating.
The last movie that had a really powerful impact on me was Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy. I saw it last year and I still think abut it a lot, he really mashed things up, time periods, notions, fashions, etc.
I like the radio station wfmu.
I listen to a lot of books on tape because I don’t have that much time to actually sit down with books. I recently re-read (listened to) Wuthering Heights and then Spies by Michael Frayn in the span of a few days. It’s fun to jump around from old to new. I like letting the imagery creep into my head. It does good things for me.
Right now I’m listening to Jonathan Richman, Eartha Kitt , Trost, Vivi Bach, Dj Raeo, Vestard Shimkus and about a zillion other things. There is always music playing in my studio. I’m inspired by president-elect Obama and the idealism that he embodies. He is a pleasure to listen to. He doesn’t bullshit anymore than what is absolutely necessary, and I respect him a lot. I have high hopes for us.