Nathan Walsh is a British artist who does spectacular realist cityscapes www.nathanwalsh.net. When I first saw his work, I knew I had to chat with him. We had a great chat about what inspires him, his love of cities and how he tries to keep everything on canvas literally in perspective.
MICHAEL: Hey Nathan, Your work is incredible. First off, How do you describe it?
NATHAN: I'd describe myself as a realist painter who deals primarily with the urban landscape. I'm happier with the term Realist as opposed to Photorealist, Super-realist or Hyper-realist as my influences are varied and seep into the work at every stage of the painting process.
MICHAEL: Cool. And what would you say the work is actually communicating?
NATHAN: The work attempts to present a credible space, which whilst making reference to the visible world and documentary photography, obeys its own distinct logic. From determining a horizon line at the start of the process to spraying a final glaze of colour, I will control the nature of the world I present to the viewer. Whether simply changing the size of a building or introducing a structure found on Google Earth, I like the idea of inventing another reality, familiar in some ways to us, but fundamentally of my own making. My newer work often deals with layers of information, whether this be the description of reflective surfaces or the combination of inside and outside spaces. This I believe offers great potential for representing reality, sandwiching what's in front of and behind the viewer together.
MICHAEL: I would imagine that what you're doing with your art is similar to what city planners and architects do. They create blueprints for the future anticipating what the city might become. In your case, you create blueprints of sorts that are actually art.
NATHAN: Whilst I'm not really interested in a vision of a future city, my recent paintings have become a mixture of real and imaginary features. Planning certainly plays a part in organizing material to be included within a painting. This is most evident at the drawing stage of the work which is the most open-ended and creative part of my process. Working with a box of pencils and an eraser, I will draw and redraw buildings, vanishing points will be shifted and material rearranged. At this point, I aim to take ownership of the raw material I'm working with and try not to let it dictate what's happening. Creating a city within a perspectival space has more potential than simply duplicating the flatness of a photograph. I'm interested in creating paintings where the viewer feels they can enter into and move around, so the depiction of a third dimension is vitally important.
MICHAEL: I guess the beauty, literally and figuratively, in what you're doing is you're not beholden to reality and the paintings are ultimately your fantasy. What I love about your work is that purely from an observer's standpoint, the worlds you create are grand yet still seem accessible and reachable.
NATHAN: When looking at a Canaletto, people often assume that they're looking at an topographically accurate view of Venice. The reality is Canaletto would shift buildings around, introduce new features and open up spaces. His painted reality made direct reference to the concrete reality of a Venetian view, but he was able to impose his own distinct vision onto the material in front of him. His greatness lay in his ability to make this new painted world completely believable. In my own humble way I'm trying to do something similar. As the work progresses, I feel more confident about manipulating the raw material of reality and transforming it into something new. The challenge is, as always to make this transformed world convincing.
MICHAEL: It seems to me that Canaletto was alive during a time and in a country that was much more art friendly. How do you think the general public regards art today?
NATHAN: I think if an artist can make something extraordinary then the general public will respond favourably, whether they have any existing knowledge of art or not. People can tell if they're being presented with something flimsy, mediocre or not really art. Making something extraordinary is therefore the challenge all artists should take up. If you strive for something exceptional, it's likely to fall somewhat short, we are all human after all, but often that failure can be spectacular.
MICHAEL: I understand. But what do you think about how contemporary art is regarded today? Do you think it's even on the radar of American society? The Super Bowl certainly is.
NATHAN: That's a tough question to answer without generalizing. I can only speak for the United Kingdom. If art appears in the popular press, then coverage tends to focus on controversy; Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindly or money, the sale of Damien Hirst's diamond skull for a reputed £50 million ($100 million). There is certainly a blurring of the boundaries between this group of artists and the celebrity culture that pervades most aspects of British society. Is this a good thing? Probably not. Art in this country I believe, is a specialist interest. There are various strands of contemporary art being made within in this country with their associated groups of supporters and detractors. When the Victorian painter William Powell Frith exhibited a new painting, people would queue for miles just to get a glimpse of it. Would the general public do the same for the latest Chris Ofili painting? Almost certainly not.
MICHAEL: And yet, I thought contemporary art was much bigger in the UK than in America. Does the average person in the UK not engage with art? What's the problem there?
NATHAN: I would imagine there are so many other things for them to get involved with, that provide a quicker, though often less satisfying reward. Art really must be experienced first hand and is therefore less accessible than the television or internet. It requires a level of effort to visit a museum or gallery, and what's on display may well be complex and challenging. However, going back to an earlier point, I firmly believe that if an artist can make great work and get a significantly visible platform for it, then in theory, all of society can engage and benefit from it. You would like to think a James Turrell installation or a Claudio Bravo painting will have universal appeal.
MICHAEL: Is this what you think about when it comes to your own work? I mean, do you think about its potential appeal or do you concentrate more on pleasing your own sensibility and creativity?
NATHAN: First and foremost, I make the work for me. I try and raise the bar with each new work, whether that's dealing with more raw material or attempting to describe something in a new way. I try not to make the same painting twice or even make a painting in exactly the same way. A subtle change in process is likely to have a huge overall effect. This can be a difficult challenge to meet, particularly within the context of realist painting, as there are pitfalls at every stage of the process. I certainly take into account other factors notably what others have done before me or the ideas other contemporary artists are exploring. I don't believe we are living in a 'golden age' for painting, however there are some extraordinary exponents currently finding new ground. The thought that a great painter like Lopez Garcia is a man in his studio just like the rest of us, battling away, day in, day out, is a humbling and inspiring thought. It makes you think that if others can achieve ground breaking work with simple tools, ingenuity and a questioning attitude, then why not me?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Your sense of perspective in your work is fantastic. I feel like I can step into every one of your paintings and be part of it. In this way, they've quite seductive. This must be intentional on your part.
NATHAN: Setting up a perspectival is fundamental to what I do. This starts by establishing a horizon line on which vanishing points are placed to fix subjects in place. Vanishing points outside the painting are determined by simple mathematical ratios. From this point, simple shapes will be divided then sub-divided according to their nature, whether it be an office block or bridge. Areas will be drawn and re-drawn until the material starts to hang together. The goal is to present a credible space as you say the viewer can enter into. This is what makes me different from a pure photorealist painter, who tends to be more interested in reproducing the flatness of a photograph. I'd like my work to be convincing and believable, but in a different way from how a camera records the world.
MICHAEL: Another thing that's really pleasing about your work is that unless future generations are living on Jupiter, it'll always seem fresh and modern. Is that a consideration?
NATHAN: I do try and find subject matter that's a little unexpected, whether that's an interesting combination of old and new architecture or a different take on a familiar subject. I am drawn to certain architects: Foster, I.M Pei, possibly because they deal with visual languages and layers of information which connects with what I do. I'm afraid I'm one of those artists who looks at their back catalogue somewhat critically. I'm always looking at the NEXT painting to be the definitive statement of what I'm interested in.
MICHAEL: Have you traveled much? I would think cities are like giant toy boxes for you just like they are for me. What are some of your favorite places? In an interesting way, you're sort of documenting urbanity or urban architecture at least.
NATHAN: I have just returned from a month-long trip to the States which took in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Niagra Falls, and finished in New York. This is in preparation for a solo show at the Albemarle gallery in 2013. Visiting cities is an important part of my process. It's important to refresh the mind with new experiences and new material. I found Chicago particularly inspiring perhaps because it hasn't been painted as much as NYC and therefore looked full of new possibilities. Its mix of architectural styles, elevated railways and hidden spaces has given me a number of new ideas.
MICHAEL: Your work is a perfect match for Chicago. Can you see why I asked that question? I think you'd also like Toronto. Are you content to do cityscapes indefinitely?
NATHAN: Chicago seemed to have rich material almost everywhere I looked. Because it's multi-layered and multi-leveled, it struck a chord with my approach to making paintings as soon as I arrived. Its grid system seemed far less insistent than New York's and is broken up by Lakeshore Drive or the river winding through its structure. I also felt its boardwalks were wider and perhaps added a European flavour I could relate to. Toronto looks fascinating, but my after the next show, I'd love to visit the Far East. There are five or six capital cities there which offer extraordinary potential. As a subject, the urban environment seems to offer limitless possibilities My approach is likely to change and my line of enquiry perhaps more channeled, but I can't imagine moving away from it.
MICHAEL: Finally Nathan, So much is said or assumed about what artists were thinking or experiencing while they were alive and working. But in YOUR own words, what do you ultimately want your work to say about you and how do you want it to be perceived after you're gone? I know that's a long way off ...
NATHAN: When I was an art a student, I used to spend hours in second hand bookstores trawling through their art books and exhibition catalogues. Finding something good by a little known painter was genuinely exciting. The idea of being recognized as a significant painter in my lifetime is optimistic to say the least. However in the future, it would be nice to think that someone a little like me might see a painting or catalogue of mine and engage with what I was doing. You have to be humble next to the great painters of art history, but this needn't stop you from attempting to do something special.
MICHAEL: Nathan, I think you succeeded at doing something special a long time ago. Thanks. This chat has been great.
Nathan does really cool work. You can see just some of it on his website at www.nathanwalsh.net.