Interview with Victoria Webb

Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

Victoria Webb: I grew up in Princeton, NJ within a few blocks of the university campus. My mom was a painter who studied at the Art Students League in NYC and my dad was a film editor who commuted daily into Manhattan. My childhood was filled with art and music lessons, along with a full arts curriculum in the Princeton public school system. I consider myself privileged to have grown up in such a liberal and diverse town, with teachers (and parents) who focused on critical thinking and freedom of expression. I went to one semester at Bradford College in MA where I was planning on a double major in art and music, and a transfer to a school with better studio painting classes. I then dropped out when my father became very ill.

In my early twenties, I was designing and selling embroidered clothing and textiles in rural areas of Vermont and Nova Scotia. My ex-husband and I moved to Toronto in 1974 and met a group of artists at a collective who were selling limited edition prints door to door. That was my first exposure with actually making a living as an artist. We made enough off that and my fashion modeling to buy a log cabin and acreage in Maine – early ‘back to the landers’ with the objective of building double studios and being full-time artists.

When I moved to Atlanta a couple of years later, I sold my own prints to galleries, at art festivals, and worked as an apprentice to an Atlanta studio, learning intaglio printmaking techniques like drypoint, aquatint, and engraving. At the same time I studied painting and color theory for about eight years at the studio of three Russian portrait artists renowned in Atlanta, the Chatovs. I began painting exclusively in oils in the early 1980’s.

NA: You have worked as a designer in the television broadcasting industry. Please discuss and also elaborate on how it relates (or not) to your painting.

VW: At the time I entered broadcast in 1982, the Mac hadn’t even been launched. I was working on the first ‘Paintbox’ developed in the UK, at the Weather Channel, one of the early cable networks. I was one of the few artists in television with a fine arts background and there was strong resistance to using abstraction in spots. The US TV industry was much more literal than Europe and Japan, which had a tradition of non-linear television commercials. Also at the time, a lot of engineering types were going into the TV design world – mostly all men. The graphics produced were on the whole, pretty awful. Heavy 3D drop shadows on text, a lot of chrome highlights that resembled cheap car commercials. The strong designers in the print world took longer to adapt to motion design, but of course now we have schools like SCAD.

Once I began animating, I used public domain and early avant garde films in commercial spots, like Man Ray, Joris Ivens, even Fred Astaire clips. Later I used Stan Brakhage and Bill Viola, Barbara Hammer and Harry Smith, among others. I loved American abstract avant film and video and it influenced my broadcast work. After layering a few dozen times, the originals were unidentifiable. Although I shamefacedly admit to putting a book of Motherwell’s paintings on an animation stand and using those too – but some of my film and video work never saw airtime; it was considered too non-literal and ‘out there’.

In 1997 I moved to San Francisco to take a job working for the interactive television network ZDTV, that eventually became TechTV; an early tv network devoted to technology owned by Ziff-Davis publishing. I learned a lot about web and motion design for the internet, interactivity, and how to build online communities. The job ended when the network was sold to the Los Angeles based gaming network G4, but that knowledge base has been critical in terms of how I’ve managed my online art presence.
The only other way my broadcast work relates to my painting career is that it supported me for 26 years.

NA: Regarding your painting, discuss your work/thought process when starting a new piece.

VW: Frank Stella said “it’s about observation….what you see and record. It’s the observation that’s most important.” Sometimes I’ll begin with a rough sketch but often I’ll just jump into an idea directly on canvas. I’m more focused my own emotional response to color, light and form than solving a problem of perspective. So most of my work is relatively flat and frontal. Over the past fifteen years I’ve been listening to primarily jazz and classical music while I’m painting; my early musical foundation in piano, violin and voice probably contribute a lot to the continued interest. Investigating contrasts and rhythms on canvas seems to me much like composing a sonata – using color instead of notes. This can come fairly directly, from live performances where I’ll sketch on site. Later I’ll transfer those to a larger format on canvas in the studio, working with sense memories.

I paint from life and rarely use photographs. I especially don’t like doing figurative or portrait work from photographs – where it’s almost always the case that the modeling gets flattened and the light source is overly high contrast. I try to be as spontaneous as possible on some work and on others, I’ll deliberate for months, sometimes years. Abstraction is not always immediate and has to be worked out just as figurative painting must be considered in terms of composition, anatomy and skin tones.

I have two times a day that are my favorites for natural light: morning and late afternoon. Sometimes I’ll work consistently and then take a week’s break. Those times away from the work offer new insight into a piece and allow for a more even critique. I have a habit that I picked up from my mother, of painting over my rejects. Regrettably, there are paintings I now wish I still had. I do have an entire slide inventory of work from my early years, but have used a digital camera to shoot the work since 2007. Technical aspects – I like textural artifacts on the surface and usually paint on heavy cotton duck that’s been stretched and gessoed a couple of times. I’ve used good linen but don’t much like the smooth surface. I still enjoy stretching my own canvas – the process allows for a quiet contemplative time before launching into the painting itself.

NA: What is your “painting” philosophy?

VW: I find it humorous when gallerists or curators refer to “issue-driven work.” The trends or current philosophies in art are not anything I’ve ever been interested in, except that during the early to mid 1980s when some of what I produced I might now agree is ‘bad art’. At the time that was a trend, and my work was shown in a lot of exhibits and galleries.

Every abstract painting is issue-driven as well; there’s always a problem to be solved, whether it’s color, form or structure and composition. It’s a personal response that may certainly be influenced by social justice, political or environmental issues, but the work is simply not as literal. I think this is where critics and curators make a great mistake in marginalizing or ignoring work in which themes or ideas aren’t instantly recognizable or communicated literally. A mark is a mark is a mark, as Gertrude Stein might say. We have obtuse and challenging music that is acceptable without having to be immediately categorized.

I began as a representational artist and still love and appreciate good figurative work. And often I’ll paint a landscape that’s absolutely recognizable. But my intent since the late 1980s has been focused on color and form, in the abstract. Again, I’ll paraphrase Stella to say that we’re just beginning with abstraction – it’s not possible (he says) to work your way out of it, but to expand the possibilities. The freedom and challenge to explore and take risks is what I love and find so exhilarating about abstraction.

NA: You live and work in Atlanta, Georgia. Discuss the local art scene.

VW: There’s a thriving arts scene here, but as another artist and I discussed at the closing of a recent show, it’s not easy to get to everything. In Chelsea you can visit one neighborhood and take in maybe 20-30 exhibits at a time. Same with San Francisco and the Union Square district. Philly has a First Night stroll and you can cover a lot of galleries in a few blocks. In Atlanta there might be two or three good galleries in one neighborhood, a collective and a café or restaurant that’s showing artists’ work. Traveling 20-30 minutes by car to each hood is not only a big time waster but it’s also now expensive because of gas prices. People generally flock to one area at a time.

There’s more outsider and folk art here in the South – it’s become a kind of branding for the region, whether that’s a good thing or not. There are also smaller outlying arts centers focused on local artists, and while we still need to get more women into the scene, it’s slowly happening. There seem to be more women gallerists and administrators running prominent institutions, like Annette Cone-Skelton at MOCA GA and Fay Gold, a longtime local gallerist who has come back into the fray developing a gallery space in the West Side Cultural Arts Center, opening this fall. Some of our arts writers and critics are women who’ve been involved in the arts for decades, like Catherine Fox, the former Atlanta Journal arts critic, who co-founded and writes for the blog ArtsCriticAtl.

NA: Who are some of your favorite “famous” painters and some of your “not-so-famous” painters?

VW: Way too many to name, but here’s the short list: Soutine, Bonnard, Vuillard, Emily Carr, the German Expressionists, the Canadian Group of Seven- specifically Tom Thomson and A.Y. Jackson, the Russian artist Valentin Serov, Hans Hofmann, Rufino Tamayo, Frank Auerbach, De Kooning, Kline, Cleve Gray, Cy Twombly, Diebenkorn, Arthur Dove, Hopper. I especially like the Bay Area Figurative painters, like David Park and Elmer Bischoff. Discovering Joan Mitchell’s work in the late 1980s was a revelation for me. I identified with her emotionalism and her bond with nature, and what I grasped from her body of work is probably far greater than any other influence.

I also like some lesser known artists in Europe – the Irish painters Barrie Cooke, Mary Canty, Donald Tesky. Ingávur av Reyni from the Faroe Islands and the Danish painter Ingvald Holmefjord. Carl Plansky is a New York artist I was about to do an interview with on my blog when he died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. Eric Aho, Mary Abbott, Stuart Shils are other contemporary American painters I admire.

NA: Regarding your art career, where would you like to be ten years from now?

VW: Gallery representation with a strong and knowledgeable dealer is something that I think most artists would like. I don’t yet know the new Atlanta scene well enough to choose – but I’m scouting. Back in the ’80’s I was with Heath Gallery (now gone) and what has become Sandler Hudson Gallery. There are so many more now, each with their own particular attributes.

I also sell online – amazingly – at retail artisan site and I’ve sold a few works at other online sites and off my own blog. I began posting work on Etsy at the beginning of 2009, a few months after my last broadcast job ended. I’ve sold more in the past two and a half years than I sold in the +thirty years I’ve been painting and exhibiting. I know a few other painters in reputable galleries, who sell on the internet as well.

Social networking has opened up the field and online sales seem to be a new model for the arts. Younger collectors are as comfortable buying art online as they are purchasing books from Amazon. I hope to expand my “business” over the next ten years. The positive aspect of that is having to be productive, the down side is keeping up with the technology. Retail is fickle and the new is always desirable. In fact, it doesn’t seem that much different from the business of art.