Interview with Chuck Walker

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Neoteric Art: Most of your work deals with the human figure. Why have you been drawn to the human form?

Chuck Walker: Now, I could say “what else is there!” but as a kid I think I just drew whatever it was I was into at the time—or wanted. The first face I just had to learn to draw perfectly was Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. That movie was one of the first I recall being riveted to the screen as they say. What an image for a kid to go to bed with and act like everything was still okay the next day especially after watching what the townies had done to the monster in the windmill. Another enthusiasm began when my dad was making one of his periodic attempts to “get back in shape” and bought a set of weights. I was probably about 7 or 8 and we used to workout together. About the same time the early Steve Reeves’ Hercules movies came out so I got very involved in drawing “musclemen” as I used to call them. That is what I was interested in so I drew that. A year or so later my dad got me a little “pocketbook how to draw the human figure” book and I learned a lot about foreshortening in that. He used to take me on the town with him in New York and have me draw a nude on the tablecloth for people to show how well I could draw but also to have a little fun raising a few eyebrows. How does a kid know a woman’s body like that? It was this little game we’d play. There was a period of cars and Big Daddy Roth knockoffs and shoes my favorite rock star wore or clothes, knives, dinosaurs, etc, etc. And then, with hormone changes, of course girls. I read in some art book (Herbert Reed’s The Nude, perhaps)…”they don’t call it ‘life-class’ for nothing” or something to that effect.

b_anotherdress.jpgHow a person portrays the nude reveals a lot about their psyche. Actually, how a person portrays human beings period tells you a lot about where they are coming from. Or how much they feel for their subject. If they’ve stood in their skin a while or not. You should only paint what really interests you. I would have loved to see what some of the great dead would have done if they weren’t painting for their church or times. What would Caravaggio have painted if he had gone to Tahiti instead of Gauguin?

NA: You had a mid-career retrospective at the Hyde Park Art Center this year. Was it interesting for you to look back at your own career so far within the historical context?

CW: My retrospective at the Hyde park Art Center was very thought provoking for me, of course. Great sky-lift to a hard decade (or more). My father died a year before and my sister died 9 months earlier. I would have left this city 14 years ago if it wasn’t for my real loves—my godchildren. I knew all the warnings when I was 20. Don’t stay in chicago if you want to “make it” as an artist. I always believed that it didn’t matter where you did your stuff. If it was any good it would eventually get recognized and would reach a wider audience. I visited my old drawing teacher John Fabion from the Tute when he was dying of cancer in the hospital (this was in 1979 maybe?) and I heard it again: “Who really cares about an artist in Chicago? You want to see art? I’ve got a house full of it from my attic to my basement. Stone sculptures, paintings, drawings…”. I knew what I was getting into by staying here.

b_janet.jpgThen along came the 80’s. For the first time Chicago didn’t seem so much like a pioneer market. I had spent 3 years in southern California and was hearing that same term “pioneer market”. So when I returned to Chicago things seemed to have changed a lot. For the first time there was excitement about “art”. Like the first Navy Pier shows.

A well known Chicago painter and I bumped into each other on the street in 1997. I had a review in the New Art Examiner that we spoke of that called for a retrospective of my work. He said to me something to the effect that if “you or I got the kind of reviews we got in this town in New York we’d be right up there with” (and he rattled off some big names in the New York art scene).

I loved having the show—was grateful for the efforts of so many people involved. They asked me who I would choose as a curator. I immediately said Margaret Hawkins. I think she consistently “gets” me. I never spoke to her through most of my earlier years of reviews from her. What always surprised me is that she would get things that I didn’t think would translate. I never had to explain myself. And I never issued an “artist statement” so all my early reviews from whomever are responses to the work and not my svengali-ing them. I’d get calls from friends asking me if I was sleeping with Margaret for those reviews. She’s very brave (my turn now) and she goes out on a limb and lets the chips fall where they may. On the other hand I’ve had some reviewers speak about me with such authority you’d think they got it first hand. Even naming influences and poses I took from artists that mean zero to me.

The only trouble with the Hyde Park show was the quantity of work that was left out. Some to keep it simple. Some (quite a few) that the collectors wouldn’t let go of. Some just out of the budget to move here from different locales. So, it was what it was. What we could do under a certain set of circumstances. Good enough for now. And maybe now I can work from a little more strength because I feel like my whole life’s been leading up to the work I’ll be able to do now.

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NA: You emerged in the mid 1970’s/early 1980’s in Chicago while the Hairy Who and Imagists were coming on strong. Did you feel any sense of personal rivalry?

CW: No, I never felt any sense of rivalry with them. They seemed to me then, at 17, to have no concerns in common with me. I had no interest in “cartoon” based styles. I was always wondering how I could get weight and presence and the pungency of the flesh in there somehow. As the Hairy Who and Imagists grew in popularity over the years I wasn’t crazy about Chicago only being know for this kind of work. (Remember the mob scenes in Frankenstein!) Would the doors stay open to other visions?

I grew to appreciate the idea of them “making things” that they liked to make. And that it wasn’t referencing some New York thing. In the 70’s I had gallery owners hand my slides back to me so fast after briefly holding them up to the light and (I kid you not) say: “No, we only show contemporary art like in New York”. They were so sure that anything involving the painting of people had to be retrograde. Tell it to the cave men. Men have always painted their survival concerns whether on cave walls or canvases right here in little old Chicago. I read somewhere that we will not develop a new art form until we develop a new sense organ. Somehow that relates.

NA: So do you think it is prudent for an artist to leave Chicago in order to “make it”? (It may depend on how an artist defines “making it”. Chicago may not readily produce international superstars but the city does have very successful artists: yourself, Kerry James Marshall, Tony Fitzpatrick, Wesley Kimler, the late Ed Paschke, Tony Tasset, etc, etc…)

b_smoke1.jpgCW: As to whether an artist has to leave Chicago in order to “make it”, I think it depends on their expectations. I read this line by Picasso years and years ago but didn’t really understand it until I had my little run of “gallery” success in the late 80’s. He said it’s necessary for an artist to have “a certain degree of success in order to realize himself”. When you have gallery backing and your work is selling it frees you to wake up in the morning and think only of the making of art which is a heady freedom if you can hold on to that and not get diverted by all the other things that can become available along with it. It can also be viewed as a responsibility. How many generations and types of handed down experience does it take to make one vision? I ask: “Who else but you? Who else if not you? Who else has the vision? Who else can execute it? And how well can you do it in the “second city” that still has quite a few of its bigger collectors flying to New York to buy while you might be spending 2 weeks trying to peddle a piece to pay the phone bill.” Selling is a different hat. You will have to wear it here.

If you stay in a city like Chicago, and grow to “love” it, you better love it for what it is and not complain about what it is not. It is not an “art capital” but on the other hand I’m ambivalent about the claustrophobia of a city like New York where I’ve actually heard people talking about art exhibitions while waiting for the light to change. I recall Hemingway didn’t like it for that reason too. Yet his publishers were there and it afforded him the freedom to live in Key West and Cuba and fish for 10 years between books.

b_face.jpgYou put me in a list of “successful artists”. Critically successful? Maybe. Let me put it this way: I have to agree there is some other thing going on here in Chicago. I’m not too sure I want to identify it or know too much how it works but I’ve heard it called “political”.

I am going to do my work no matter where I live. (My real happiness has very little to do with Chicago’s “Art-world”.) I have no illusions about Chicago….I should say “Art-world-Chicago”. (Chicago as a city is a whole other thing.) I already mentioned my experience of having my slides handed back to me speedily after a cursory glance with the line: “we only show contemporary work like New York”. How about this one told to me with a laugh as I was leaving after being seriously complimented and then dismissed with: “you might be one of these artist’s who gets greatly appreciated after he’s dead.”(!)…this from a “living” dealer with the power to insure that that didn’t happen. Or this: after showing all my new work which they claimed to like, being taken into another room to be shown what was “happening in New York” with the suggestion that I go home and add in some color like that and then come back again. Or this: a studio visit from another dealer— he, turning pages in my sketchpads saying things like “this is beautiful!” and “who draws like this anymore!”, etc, etc (if I could eat compliments). This dealer asks what I think they should sell for and I suggest a price and he agrees…and then he says, “but who would buy them?” And that was the end of it for him. Being the son of a liquor salesman I would think the creating of a market was the dealer’s job. Who would ever think kids would willingly drink Jaegermeister if there had not been a little marketing going on? But should I want to work with someone that didn’t see it themselves. I’ve noticed when dealers say they won’t sell that one, they usually don’t. Wipe the dust from your feet and move on. There’s life outside.

And these experiences are all from “major” Chicago gallerists. I’m not going to name names but I could write a book of famous quotes. I’ve been been trying to open the doors to “my product” since 1970 and only had maybe three main takers in all those years. I read that Col. Sanders tried peddling his chicken recipe to 2000 people before he got his first taker.

b_asiangirl.jpgYou put me in the successful category. Here is another experience of mine from my “dark” decade. I’d put together a beautiful package for one of the top galleries in Chicago. I left and made my way to a phone booth to excitedly tell my girlfriend that I just dropped it off. I couldn’t see how anyone could ignore that presentation! Then she told me that they just called her and wanted me to pick it up. They had it in their hands maybe ten minutes. Now this is post “fame”, remember.

And my show at Hyde Park—you would think it would open doors. I made myself known to every gallery in town this time. No responses at all until only a few weeks ago when Vicky Tesmer had seen my website and got in touch with me. She asked me in for a few shows, admits she can’t really handle a career but says she is “committed” to introducing me to the right gallery here and that she thinks my work might be appreciated in Europe where she has a few connections. That’s the kind of people I like working with.

I don’t know if I’m a great role model for young artists. I did not do all the right things. I wouldn’t have gone through all this if I didn’t believe in myself. Perhaps I believed too much that my work would be recognized without my careering moves. I understand that there are courses now at the Art Institute of Chicago in survival for the artist. And maybe it is simpler for me because there is nothing else I ever really wanted to do except maybe play the guitar like Lead Belly.
b_onthefloor.jpgNA: What’s the difference for you in making a painting and making a drawing?

CW: For me, not a lot of difference. It’s what materials I have at hand and how much time or energy I have at that moment. But the thing that makes me want to “make a picture” is the same now as ever. And since I don’t do studies or prep drawings I usually am surprised that what I come up with happens to be the dominant things I’ve been mulling over in my mind or life whether I plan it or not. I discover what I am thinking about often after the fact. Then it’s like an “oh yeah” experience.

NA: Who have been your influences?

CW: I don’t want to tell my influences because I’ve been having fun over the years hearing myself compared to an ever growing list of artists but never “my main man” that saved my ass in high school and let me out the back door escape valve. Someday…

I know if I told I’d forever have to be confronted by a growing number of “critics” who “saw it all along”. But I will say that I like any one who is doing what really matters to them. I mean we’re only here for a little while. You can at least ask yourself what you really like.

www.chuckwalkerart.com