Interview

Ted Gahl

by Corydon Cowansage

January 05, 2014

I first met Ted Gahl in 2009 when we were in grad school together at RISD. Back then his material approach varied significantly. One week he might make twenty small, painterly abstractions, and the next he’d be experimenting with larger ready-made objects and constructions. He worked incredibly fast, churning through ideas, and his studio was always packed with new work.

Ted’s current practice is considerably pared down by comparison. His new paintings are larger and more deliberate than in the past, and primarily limited to paint on canvas. His work is embedded with disparate, often idiosyncratic references. Each painting incorporates intuitive, verging on stream-of-consciousness associations that weave together everything from art history to his mundane daily experiences. Ted’s paintings are chalky, brushy and matte, and his palette is slightly muted so marks often register only faintly. The paint application is quick and direct, yet at times previous layers of color poke through hinting at information that may have already been added and subsequently removed.

The day before Thanksgiving I visited Ted’s studio in Litchfield, Connecticut where he was working on new paintings that he’ll include in his upcoming solo show Sundays (Like the Brightest Light in the Theatre Shining On An Empty Stage) at DODGE Gallery, on view January 11th through February 23rd.

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Image courtesy the Artist

Corydon Cowansage: Do you want to just start by talking a little bit about what you’re working on in here?

Ted Gahl: I started thinking about the show while I was out in Los Angeles. I go out there and house sit, and while I’m there I make a lot of small work. I usually end up sending most of it back home. A lot of the ideas from that work have become part of the larger paintings. That’s become kind of consistent, but this is the first time that the small paintings have acted as drawings and literally become larger versions.

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Small paintings, Los Angeles, CA, 2013. Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: So you’re actually remaking a lot of the small LA paintings—but bigger—once you get back home to Connecticut?

TG: Sure. Some are very close to the originals, others give me a direction for larger works. I pull sections from what I like, ideas that I want to see pushed further.

CC: You seem to pull a lot of different references into each piece, like you’ll quote particular painters that you like or you’ll stick a personal experience or anecdote in there.

TG: Yeah, I think I’ve always made work like that. If you look at the press release for the show at DODGE, half the release is the notes from my iPhone. That’s kind of like the new pencil and paper—making a list on the run. The stuff on that list is either ideas for titles, for paintings, or for a show. I go day-to-day collecting stuff. It’s funny but a lot of the ideas I get aren’t while I’m painting, they’re while I’m doing other things. When we were at RISD together, one thing I talked about when I was working on my thesis was the idea of transcendental meditation, where you can be doing something like raking leaves, which is this very mundane simple chore, but while you’re doing it you begin to get these very intense ideas because your body has gone into a sort of autopilot mode. It’s almost like dreaming or something, you’re free to really let your mind roam around.

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William Osawa Tanner, The Seine – Evening, 10 in. x 8 in., circa 1900.

I’ve been lucky to be able to spend time with my family in Texas this past year and I got to see a lot of great art while I was in Houston. I finally got to see work that I’ve wanted to see my whole life, like the Rothko Chapel and Twombly’s work at the Menil. The show down there that really blew me away was a big William Ossawa Tanner show, whose work I knew of, but I wasn’t that familiar with. An entire wing of the museum was filled with hundreds of his paintings and studies.

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Henry Ossawa Tanner, Moroccan Man, 13 x 9 1/4 in., oil on panel.

There’s a couple of paintings that have stuck with me until now, they’re that good. I still think about them. I could see so much influence on current painting now, whether it was color palettes or certain motifs, but he doesn’t seem to come up a lot. When I incorporate ideas from artists like him into my work it’s my way of trying to make a connection with them, or even to pay homage to them. I think looking further back, there are a lot of artist’s who are really important and when they’re not having these big museum shows or making a catalogue that people are talking about, then people don’t talk about them.

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Ted Gahl, Sights (3), 2013, acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on unprimed canvas, 84 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the Artist and DODGEgallery.

CC: A lot of these paintings seem bigger than you usually work, and like you’re working on them for a longer period of time. Are you letting them evolve more slowly? The small ones seem pretty quick—like sometimes they’re made in just one day, one sitting.

TG: Yeah. I think a problem I was having with big paintings in the past was that I put materials on this pedestal as if they’re very precious. I felt like everything you do that’s over 70 inches has to be some major progression, which is not only impossible—just impossible to put that kind of pressure on yourself, but it’s also ridiculous because when you get down to it, it’s just canvas and wood. I think I was literally intimidated by the material. I worried about whether what I was working on would be worth the size. I’m trying to worry a little less, and enjoy it.

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Cy Twombly at the Menil Collection. Image courtesy the Menil Collection.

This is the largest I’ve ever worked in a series and some take longer than others. I think to make every painting so heavily worked is almost like speaking in a sentence with all capital letters. It’s almost like screaming at somebody. I like the idea of looking at a room full of paintings where they kind of weave in and out. Twombly’s work in Houston was a perfect example. There’s one room with an 80-foot triptych that he made when he was 70 or 80 years old, and then you go into another room and there’s this very small, intimate white monochrome. I love that idea of a sentence of paintings. You have a comma here, a word with italics here. You have different ideas on different days. Some days you feel different than other days. Some days you feel depressed and another day it’s sunny and you feel great.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

This is the sweet spot size for me. I’m finally getting comfortable with it. I like this size because it has a presence, but it still fits through my door. It’s just big enough that I can handle it by myself and get it into a truck if I need to bring it somewhere. Anything past this right now, and I start to run into some issues.

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A 48 in. x 24 in. painting in progress. Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: I remember at RISD you would sometimes use whatever materials were on hand, and you’ve used other materials more recently too. I remember seeing some small paintings at your last show at DODGE that had wood triangular spikes sticking out of them. You said somewhere that to you those were sailboats, which I thought was so funny and weird. Even here [pointing to a painting in the middle of Ted’s studio], are those pieces of wood on the edges of that painting?

TG: Oh they’re paint stirrers from Home Depot. The whole idea with these was “Painting?”. The stirrers are something that you’ve always seen when you paint. I grew up painting houses in the summer and I used these all the time, but never considered them in a fine art context. I go to Home Depot a lot to get screws and just general stuff, and I kept seeing those stirrers. They looked like the same wood pieces I was buying to make frames, but instead they were free, and I thought it would be fun to incorporate them somehow.

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48 in. x 24 in. painting, frame detail. Image courtesy the Artist.

But it’s also that funny question of “Painting?”: Is it a painting? What is good painting? What is bad painting? What is painting that you do on a barn that you get paid for versus painting that goes on a canvas that you show in a gallery? And the bigger question of what is it all for (making all these things)? I’ve been trying to pare things down to mostly just painting and painting objects, and not going too crazy with materials. When you’re doing stuff like this you have to sit down at the end of the day and ask yourself, “What do I respond to? What am I really obsessed with?”. For me, it’s painting. That’s what I’ve always responded to the most.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Sometimes you put these kind of subtle painting inside jokes in your work, but a lot of your more personal references aren’t necessarily legible to the viewer. Like in this painting [pointing to a painting in Ted’s studio] that cartoony guy is your dad, but I don’t think anyone will necessarily know that unless you title it that way or something. So how important is it that the viewer can understand the references or be in on a joke? Or is it more just the way that you enter the paintings yourself?

TG: Yeah, it’s okay if people don’t immediately say, “oh, that’s obviously his dad”. Inside jokes seem to be a part of a lot of art and a lot of painting. Sometimes it’s on the level of an academic inside joke, or painting about painting. When I throw in a cartoon of my dad—that’s mostly for my dad. That’s so he can come to a show and say, “I’m in that painting in New York!”. He always wanted to be an artist. He’s an immigrant and his father said, “Absolutely not, you can’t be an artist”. So that’s my thank you to him, injecting him into this. People might just think it’s some cartoony figure, and that’s ok with me because on the surface that’s what it is.

CC: Does your dad ever come to your studio and make anything?

TG: No, no. He lives vicariously through this stuff in the best way. He’s a great drawer. He made some paintings back in the 60’s and he thought none of them were good. I think they’re good. My mom makes these drawings that she’s been leaving on the table when she goes out since I was in high school. I think they’re amazing, but she thinks they’re terrible. Just the fact that my dad’s supportive of this just one generation later—that’s huge.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Drawing seems like a big part of all of these paintings, both in terms of how they’re actually painted but also maybe in how you record or formulate ideas day-to-day. Do you make a lot of sketches and drawings?

TG: Absolutely. I’ve actually been drawing more. I went to Chicago last year for a week and I didn’t have too much to do other than hang out, read, and draw. That week really got me back into using a pencil. I feel like when you’re really focused on painting, sometimes you can forget about drawing. When I have free time I want to just go and make paintings. For this upcoming show I mined through old folders of drawings that I made when I was six or seven. It was wild how much more small detail there was in those drawings, as opposed to ones I’ve made as an adult. I’ve been thinking about that and the idea that when you’re a kid it’s this time in your life when you don’t know about galleries and you don’t know about how people are going to perceive what you’re making, or if it’s going to end up on some blog. I’ve been looking at those drawings and thinking about what I was interested in then, and revisiting some of those things and putting a little bit of that into this work. I made homages to people then, and I’m still doing that now, so there’s definitely a strange link there.

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A drawing from 1989. Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Have you actually pulled from any of the drawings that you made as a kid and put them directly in the paintings?

TG: Yeah. I did this [pulling out a drawing] in like….1989 or 1990. This was a book that my dad had on the shelf that he really likes. This was my version.

CC: That’s a really cool drawing!

TG: Right? [laughing] I thought it was really funny, and I can tell that as a little kid that I was trying so, so hard to emulate that cover. There are details in there that are really kind of close. I found the drawing in a folder when I was cleaning out my parent’s basement, and I couldn’t ignore that idea of the intensity, this little seven year-old kid just focusing on this drawing.

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Ted Gahl, Heinrich Böll Drawing (1990), acrylic on canvas, 60 in. x 48 in., 2012/13. Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Yeah, when you’re little you learn to draw by copying—and you feel like a good drawing is one that looks just like the thing you’re depicting.

TG: And the funny thing is that it looks nothing like it! It’s kind of terrible. I made a larger version as a painting. It’s almost an exact copy of this drawing.

CC: Did you make photocopies of all the drawings you found?

TG: Yeah I photocopied them and keep them around, thinking about them. Using parts of them here and there.

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Detail of 48 in. x 24 in. painting in progress. Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: You should make a book of them.

TG: I made a book of my mom’s drawings that I’ve had since high school. It’s around here somewhere. They’re bad—in the best way. In the sweetest, most naïve way.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: These are those notes that she left you?

TG: Yeah from like 15 years ago.

CC: Did she know you were saving them?

TG: She saved some and I saved some. And we put them together.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: What’s that note? [referring to a framed note hanging on the wall]

TG: The Larry David story is wild. Around 2007, I made this little painting of Larry David with steam coming out of his ears. I just made it for fun. At the time my mom was working at a small private school in the admissions department, and she met a guy named Lloyd Braun who was checking out the school for his daughter. My mom asked him about the coincidence, and it turns out he was the guy who was the basis for the character “Lloyd Braun” on Seinfeld. He said that he was really good friends with Larry David and that they played golf together all the time. My mom told me the story and I said, “you have to see if Lloyd Braun would be willing to take my painting back with him to L.A. and try to give it to Larry”. My mom gave him the painting and he said he’d see what he could do. Months and months went by and I kind of forgot about it. Almost a year later I was in Spain and streamed a new episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm on my laptop, and halfway through the episode I totally freaked out—my painting was in the show, right on the back shelf in Larry David’s office! When I got home to CT that thank-you note from Larry David had arrived in the mail and was on my desk. It turned out that the painting was actually in multiple episodes.

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Screenshot from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Painting is on shelf, upper left behind photo. Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: [laughing] That’s amazing…

TG: The whole thing was one of the greatest, most surreal things that has ever happened to me.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: [laughing] So do you work on different paintings at the same time?

TG: I only work right there, but I’ll move paintings in and out of that spot.

CC: There’s so much variability in the ideas and imagery painting to painting, like you have painter ADHD or something. But at the same time, when you’re working on a painting you’re pretty intensely focused on just that one.

TG: Yeah, I like to have them all up so they’re here. I’ll probably work on this one [pointing to the painting in the painting area] and see where it goes, and then I’ll switch it out. I never feel like, “oh, I’m going to run over there while this yellow is out and add some yellow”. It’s usually like this for a week or so and then I switch gears. That other way of working, like with stations…you start thinking about this realm of making work where you have assistants sitting at tables applying paint by sections because it’s a project with a deadline, and for me that takes away from the whole idea of what’s interesting…

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Gabriele Münter, Towards Evening (Gegen Abend), 1909.

CC: Yeah, you have funny opposing impulses. You’ll incorporate little inside jokes, but you have a pretty romantic relationship to painting. Your paintings are sincere, even nostalgic sometimes. When you’re including an homage to another artist, like in this painting [pointing to a painting hanging on the studio wall] where you painted your own version of Gabriele Münter’s work, that seems really sincere, even earnest—

TG: Or is it? [laughing]

CC: Well, ok, you clearly aren’t trying to perfectly replicate her painting, but you love her work and that gesture seems sincere.

TG: I’m just trying to make paintings of how I am. That stuff’s got to be in there. I owe people. I owe people who I used to know, or know now, or kind of knew, or never knew. I think that’s really important. I’ve always been drawn to history, whether it was art history or history in general, because what else is there? There’s a picture of a monument downstairs. I look at that every day when I leave and I think about where we were then and where we are now. For whatever reason that’s huge for me. That’s the only proof we’ve got. If there are any painting jokes and little things like that in my work, I don’t mean to be irreverent, I don’t mean for it to be rude. It’s not coming from a middle-finger type of place. It comes from the idea that hey, if you’re a painter looking at this, maybe you’ll get it.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Yeah definitely. They don’t hit you over the head. Aside from your lists and quick sketches—and now the small painting studies—it doesn’t seem like you usually sit down and map things out.

TG: Regardless of size, I plan work out very rarely. That will happen here and there. Usually, it starts to materialize on its own.

You get older—I’m 30 now, and that’s not old by any means, but I’m not 16 anymore when everything felt really new and exciting and I was going to go travel or go to this party or meet this girl or whatever. Painting took the place of a lot of that stuff.

CC: [laughing]

TG: No it really has. It’s hard to keep your attention nowadays. I can’t go see a movie anymore because I just can’t sit in the theater for two hours. I get fidgety and I want to look at my phone or go drive around. Painting keeps me in one place for longer than anything I’ve ever found, and that alone I think is worth something.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Yeah, we’ve been programmed to have pretty short attention spans for everything now. You don’t want to read more than a paragraph or watch more than 30 seconds of something. Everything is abbreviated and in lists or content streams.

TG: Yeah, the way a lot of people view art now, with Instagram and Facebook— you just scroll right through it. You scroll through someone’s painting that took them six months to make and you press the like button, and then you’re on to another thing.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

CC: Has moving back to Connecticut affected the way you work? You’re a little bit off the grid out here.

TG: I think it had to happen. I was lucky to live in New York when I went to Pratt. I went back to New York for a year after grad school, but I left because it was just becoming hard, and there were a few little opportunities that popped up in Connecticut. I was making a lot of paintings in New York, but I was also drinking too much. I love New York. I’d wanted to be there ever since I was a little kid. I still go as much as I can and see shows. There’s great stuff there. My friends are there. I might go back, but I needed to get out of the rut that I was in. I’ve felt better about myself and the work I’ve been making out here, for the time being.

CC: Are you going to show any of the little paintings from LA with the bigger ones at Dodge?

TG: I’ll go with the stuff that I’m exciting about and basically move a lot of stuff around at the gallery, and when it feels right, it feels right. I have to go and edit on the fly. I have to just go to the gallery and when it fits together, that’s that.

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Image courtesy the Artist.

Ted Gahl was born in 1983 in New Haven, Connecticut. He received his BFA from Pratt Institute in 2006 and his MFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2010. His work has been exhibited at Queens Museum of Art, Queens, NY; Art Blog Art Blog, New York, NY; Halsey McKay Gallery, East Hampton, NY; Middlemarch, Brussels, Belgium; The Peninsula School, Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, ME; Morgan Lehman, New York, NY; Storefront Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY; ACNY, Brooklyn, NY; Dan Graham gallery, Los Angeles, CA; FJORD Projects, Philadelphia, PA; Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Nudashank, Baltimore, MD; Geoffrey Young Gallery, Great Barrington, MA; and Green Gallery West, Milwaukee, WI. Gahl’s work has been reviewed in Artinfo, Artnet, NY Arts Magazine, White Hot Magazine, Beautiful/Decay, Time Out New York, and New American Paintings Blog, among others. Gahl lives and works in Litchfield, Connecticut.

Corydon Cowansage is a painter living and working in New York. She received an MFA in painting from RISD and a BA in art from Vassar College.