Gealt is generally known as a painter of landscapes. But this suite of compositionally dynamic, richly hued oil paintings encrusted with pigment is as much about the artist’s personal experience of the natural world as it is the landscape itself. In conversation in the gallery, Gealt, now 81, reflected on how his paintings relate to the wooded Southern Indiana terrain that has long been home:
BG: I’m a city guy who has transformed himself into a country person. We’ve been privileged to be on a beautiful piece of property in ‘Sweet Owen’ County. You never can own your land, because you pass it on, but while you’re there, you can have ownership of certain things. I’m there; I know it. So I want the paintings to be personal, to reflect us, our times. We live in strange rough times. It’s not delicate. It’s not like a little deer trail. It reflects a kind of turmoil.
YK: People tend to think of a natural landscape as bucolic, as providing a way of getting away from it all. But I remember from grad school that you always demanded of us students, ‘What makes your painting of this time?’ That was always a big concern for you. When you talk about turmoil, is it the turmoil of the world or your personal stuff?
BG: They’re intertwined, right? Being in nature, I can see myself evolving. Actually, I think of myself as a realist. I can’t name you each tree in the painting, but I’m a realist in that the experience is real. And that’s what I want.
I want the paintings to be personal, to reflect us, our times. We live in strange rough times. It’s not delicate. It’s not like a little deer trail. It reflects a kind of turmoil.
YK: That’s actually what I was thinking — there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between a mark and a branch or something. But I think the way you’re talking about them being real is that they reproduce your experience of being in nature, but not necessarily represent it?
BG: I hope so. I hope so…
YK: -- like on a phenomenological level?
BG: I hope that if you’re hiking around, that you say, whoa, that’s like a Gealt. I would like that. That it opens your eyes up. That you pick your head up and actually kind of experience the craziness of it all.
YK: Right now we’re in this very magical time of year for Southern Indiana where the redbuds and the dogwoods and the lilacs are coming out against the very chartreuse foliage and so we’re seeing that contrast in the landscape. Is that the kind of thing that inspires you?
BG: I think sometimes the painting just takes over. I don’t think I paint…
YK: …in such a referential way as that?
BG: Yeah, I don’t. If I said to you, ‘I am going to paint the dogwoods,’ it would never happen. Unless it was embedded into the painting. It’s a painting, so in a way, I’m not obligated to nature, really, I’m obligated to recreating nature.
YK: Right, I guess I didn’t mean, is it plein air painting, but more, does what you see out there inform the painting?
BG: I guess I’m a realist. I think they feel real to me. That’s my only judgment: does it feel real to me? I would love to sit down and be calm and paint a tree in the woods, it’s just not what I do.
YK: So what is your method? Do you look at the woods from your studio?
BG: I’m outside all the time. Then I go inside. I said to somebody once: it’s interesting when you go inside your studio, you go inside your brain. And the outside world is blocked out. So whatever’s out there … I’ll do these big ocean paintings in my studio in the woods. It’s kind of a strange thing…Once you’re in your studio, you’re in a different world.
I would love to sit down and be calm and paint a tree in the woods, it’s just not what I do.
These paintings all take about a year. But not just one painting at a time. So, there’re two other paintings that belong to this one. This was the very first one. [Gealt pointed out “Cold Winter Day.”] It looked immature to me; it needed to grow. So I took it out, and I put back on the wall, and I went after it, over and over and over it again. So, you know, now I love the painting. It’s dense. These are like walls. How do you get into the woods? What are you looking at? Trees, light, space. I don’t want it to be like, that’s an oak tree, that’s a sycamore. I want them all to fuse together but you still see that’s a landscape…the air’s moving…
YK: You don’t want to lose the forest for the trees!
YK: That’s a cliché but I think that’s actually true here. You want the gestalt of it.
BG: Yeah, I want you to say, can I walk into this? There’s a certain trail I have. It’s like a trek.
YK: Do you ever think, I’m going to make a painting in one week? Just a little painting? A one-weeker?
BG: Yeah, but then that goes into two weeks. You can only be happy or unhappy. If you come in and you’re unhappy for some reason, then you gotta keep working. Somehow you come in one morning and you say, you know what, I think it looks as good as I could ever make it. And then you say, I could do this, and you go back into it and then you screw it up, and then you can never get it back again. It’s not like on a computer I can go back to an image --
YK: -- like ‘undo, undo, undo’--
BG: Can’t do that…only ‘do, do, do’ --
YK: -- but you probably scrape --
BG: -- and if I scrape it off, I’ll use it somewhere else. Like here, I wish it was thicker here, so it really came out. The texture. It’s like rock. The tactility, I love these crevices…I get enticed by its thickness. It’s sculptural, it has my own history in it.
YK: You can’t help but think about time when you look at your paintings.
YK: I’m thinking about geological time, and a lot of places here in Southern Indiana you become acutely aware of it because of the rocks, and these outcroppings where you see the strata. So that feeling of time is all around us here. But the paintings also record a history of decision-making. And inquiry. And wrestling with... just existential wrestling.
BG: I think time is important. I work a year on it, but I still want a particular moment. It’s only in your eye for that second, but to get to that second is a year.
YK: In our current culture of short attention spans and chronic ADHD it might be hard for people to understand how you keep on being interested in a painting day after day. Do you come to the painting and do some kind of inquiry — what do you need today? How does that work? How do you have that relationship for a year with this painting?
BG: It’s like raising kids…one day you hate them, one day you love them. I come in the studio every day and look at the painting as cold as I can to see what I really think. Does it feel right? And I try to be as blunt as I can to myself. And then I just work on them. I just love working on them — probably too much!
YK: Why too much? You say that like it’s some kind of guilty pleasure?
BG: Yeah. You wanna see the Dick Blick bills and the Zecchi bills from Italy that come in?
I once said to Bill, ‘If you used more paint, you’d be a better painter,’ and he said, ‘If you knew how to paint, you’d use less paint.'
YK: Ha! You know, one of the biggest questions people will have is ‘Why does he use all that paint?’
BG: Jokingly, I once said to [longtime colleague] Bill [Itter], ‘If you used more paint, you’d be a better painter,’ and he said, ‘If you knew how to paint, you’d use less paint.’ [Itter and Gealt were roommates while in the M.F.A. program at Yale in the 1960s.]
The paint becomes like terrain. This sounds too logical, but the ground is always moving over itself. It keeps coming down. So, in this painting the earth is always moving over the layer underneath it. You can’t put your foot into the painting. So that’s important to me. That’s the danger part of it. How I see nature. I mean I’ve fallen enough hiking around.
YK: I mean, there is so much pigment and so much three-dimensional matter that it is much more like reproducing the experience of the dirt and the soil and the earth, recreating it. Some people might ask, ‘Barry, why are you not a sculptor instead of a painter?’
BG: That was my training as a kid. I went to art school from 8 to 17 when I started college every Saturday. I studied every Saturday with a sculptor. When I applied to undergrad school at the Philadelphia College of Art I never drew very much, never painted. Never did a watercolor. I just love materials…expensive though!
YK: But you still didn’t answer my question. So why aren’t you using clay now instead of pretending that your pigment is clay?
BG: I fell in love with painting. In my first two years I had Cs in painting, but I just fell in love with it. I just loved all the color of it. I think a lot of painters don’t use rich color, don’t have big contrasts go on. I see a fancy color, and I say, ‘I gotta own that!’
All my colors are laid out on different tables, so I can find them. Way too many! It’s not a limited palette by any means! There’s maybe a few hundred colors. Luckily, I had a job and I could afford it. To a point! You know, people don’t talk about that, but it’s expensive!
YK: As someone who never had a lot of money for paint, I look at your paintings and think, ‘Ah! the wanton use of paint!’ and do these calculations, like maybe he could use some kind of filler on the underneath layers — sand, or wall paint…
BG: I did a residency at Utah State and came back and wanted to do these sculptural mountain paintings and went to [longtime colleague] Jerald Jacquard and said, ‘I need material.’ And he suggested Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty. So, you make a small armature and layer over it. But it makes a painting very heavy, almost too heavy to hang.
YK: There’s something about…I was looking at the Rembrandts in the National Gallery…and there’s something about the body, and the flesh, that seems like it might be a common thread with you. Your paintings are more about experiencing nature with your body, so it’s almost like the physicality needs to be there.
BG: Yes. That’s exactly it. When I’m out there, I’m out there for the hike, for the experience. I might see a turtle one day. Some days it’s wet and slippery and you slip down the hill. It’s mushroom season now which means you have to do a lot of walking and hiking. These are all particular. They are not generalizations of the woods. I’m a realist. These are real places. I could actually take you there. This place is 200 yards from my house.
YK: I can’t even imagine the tools you are using to put all this paint on. Sometimes we see something that suggests a brush, and then a knife, but I don’t even know … like paddles? Or what? I don’t know how you get it on there.
BG: Good. That’s good. If I broke it down for you it takes the fun away. My last show was about the fluidity of the landscape, so I poured paint. These are not about the fluidity of the landscape.
YK: Yeah, these seem like junctures.
BG: Yeah, I like that. They are. They’re little junctures. I want you to think, ‘How could I get through all this to get somewhere?’
YK: To what extent does knowing how rapidly the environment is changing inform the way you interpret the landscape?
BG: Our land will go to Sycamore Land Trust. We don’t want it ever to be divided up. It’s 80 acres of hills and valleys and a waterfall. We used to be able to hike around behind the waterfall and sit down and just watch it. But now it only runs in rainstorms. So, when it rains I gotta go out and look at it.
YK: So just in your time on the land, it’s changed that much? So isn’t there a real sadness that imbues it?
BG: No, it has to change. It’s like art.
Opening Friday, April 21 at University Collections at McCalla School, “Experiencing and Remembering: The Poetry and Spirit of Nature” was curated by Sonja Rogers, assistant curator of campus art.
“When I was an undergraduate here at IU, I worked at Framemakers as a frame designer,” said Rogers. “I met Barry in this role and got to know him over the years. Last year in a visit to the newly renovated space at McCalla he felt so inspired by the possibilities that this space can offer to students and collections. He taught in this building for seven years. He asked if there was the potential for showing his work in the space and I offered to collaborate with him on an exhibition as part of my course work for my graduate degree. Working with him has been a joy and I am so grateful for all of the support in bringing this show to life.”
University Collections at McCalla, 525 North Indiana Avenue, is open Tuesday through Friday 12-5 p.m. and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. An opening reception for “Experiencing and Remembering: The Poetry and Spirit of Nature” takes place Friday, April 21, 5-7 p.m. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Gealt's friend and collector Tony Moravec.
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