For those who don't know your background as an artist, why don't
you, if you would, say how you got started in making artwork
I've drawn and painted all my life, but I began showing my work
in the late 1950's in West Palm Beach - and I had a solo show
at Alex Kirkland's Gallery 14 in Palm Beach in 1960. But I had
an urge to write, and I spent the next fifteen years trying to
be a writer. It wasn't until 1978 that I got back into visual
art, first in Louisiana and then in Arkansas.
LB: As a writer - and we'll talk more
about the show in a moment - but does text play an important
part in your work? Is there a sort of narrative - ?
WC: It definitely seems to have a narrative
quality, and yet I don't think it can be understood as narrative.
Maybe this is why I could never be satisfied with writing, because
it lacks the visual, corporeal aspect of painting.
LB: In visual art, you have the presence,
irreducibly, of objects, but then it can mean something transcendent
of that opacity.
WC: Right, and become partially transparent.
The forms can become partially transparent to their meanings,
like a text, but never completely. There's always that physical,
sensual aspect to it, and that dual nature of painting parallels
my basic subject, which is the tension between the spirit and
the flesh, you might say - although I should add that I say that
as an observer of the work and not as the artist, who pretty
much remains a mystery to me.... I do think in terms of narrative
in my painting, obviously, but narratives of what? I mean, I'm
not illustrating any known text. I don't even know what the forms
signify, often. If I do know, it comes later, after I've been
working on the thing for a while, or sometimes long after I've
LB: That happens a lot In life experiences,
too. We sort of live those things automatically, and without
separating ourselves from them, and it's only upon reflection
that you can sort of begin to piece things together in a certain
WC: Exactly. Pattern is separation. Sartre
said essence is the past... But in discovering the essence, you
lose the becoming - that coming-into-existence which can only
take place in the present. A painting can combine those two things
- its essence with Its becoming, or in other words its transparency
with its opacity. I could never manage that with writing.
LB: You seem to be, both formally and in terms of your content,
very familiar with the history of art. And I noted that in the
large newer works there are hovering figures that recall so much
those frogleg-kicking pictures of Correggio, for example. And
then in those dramatic close-ups of the sort of Inquisition type
images I'm reminded so much of people like Caravaggio and the
Utrecht school, like Honthorst and Terbrugghen and those.
WC: Thai's true, and I've asked myself, why
this regression into the seventeenth century baroque, as it were
- what does it mean?... I don't really know - I try to follow
my internal images without asking too many questions. But I have
tried to analyze it - or maybe rationalize would be a better
word - and it may be a sort of reaction to what I might call
the Alexkatzification of art. Shadows are eliminated in a lot
of contemporary painting, because we live in well lighted, wall-to-wall
fluorescent interiors. We live in them, we work in them, we shop
in them. But between those places, at night, under the bridges,
in the alleys and the bars, that old chiaroscuro still exists.
And since my protagonists are often socially marginalized characters
who live in these dark places, this may be an appropriate way
to portray them. Also, in a metaphorical sense, I think we read
light and darkness in an image basically the same today as people
did in Caravaggio's time.
LB: Do you see yourself as a postmodernist?
We have a certain vantage point in the 1990s, and we can for
a variety of reasons look back now over a very well documented,
for example, visual art history. And we can take these images
and manipulate them in various ways. Even great themes, which
sort of continue to define our existence, have been restated
and restated and restated -
WC: Well, we're all postmodernists whether
we like it or not. I mean, our traditions, our myths, even those
of Modernism, are gone. You can't have an avant garde without
a consensus on the meaning of progress, some idea of which direction
to advance in. So we manipulate images and ideas of the past,
searching for those lost themes which, as you say, define our
existence - or used to. The way I look at postmodernism - this
is a gross oversimplification, but in general it's a synthetic
way of working. Modernism is analytic, postmodernism is synthetic...
But I like to think of my own work as neither analytic nor synthetic
but as organic, growing spontaneously out of its own obscure
roots.. . . You just have to trust that your own personal myth
is also, on some level, a universal one.
LB: Do you think it's unusual for an artist
such as yourself to be a kind of contemporary mythmaker or narrator,
WC: I think a lot artists try it, but it's
not really a thing you can try to do. Myth and dream are linked
together, and neither can be created artificially. You can always
spot a made up dream. That's what I mean by organic. It's just
a sort of flowing out in that spontaneous way - an opaque flow.
The transparency may come later. Two of my favorite artists are
El Greco and Botero, and I like to think of their work as bracketing,
or standing at these two poles, the transparent and the opaque.
In El Greco we have all those elongated forms stretching upward,
reaching up like flames toward heaven. Everything is air and
fire. Botero is all earth and water. His figures are round and
heavy, full of mass and volume, rooted in the earth. So I think
the tension between these two extremes - the spirit and the flesh,
the conceptual and the perceptual - is what my own work tries
to express. But I think all artists, at their best, are working
on the cusp of these two fundamental aspects of human consciousness.