Featured Artist Interview: Gary Buhler, by Dave Hegeman for Triggerfish
Gary Buhler loves to paint. He also has a deep love for landscape. So it comes as no surprise that he has focused his aesthetic energies over his 25-year career to a painterly exploration of the world around him. During this time his work has focused on the desert landscape of Arizona, the mountain streams and forests of the Pacific Northwest, and, most recently, a new series of “urban landscapes”. Buhler also teaches painting and drawing at George Fox University. I sat down with Gary in his storefront studio in downtown Newberg, Oregon, to talk to him about art making and the following is a transcript of our conversation.
Triggerfish: Who has influenced you?
GB: My first teacher at the college level – David Johnson – was very influential. He was a watercolorist and a very good teacher. He was at Judson Baptist College [now closed]. It was one of the few Christian colleges back then that offered art courses. Even at this tiny two-year college, it had a good art program. (It turns out that four of the faculty in the Art Department at George Fox University [where Gary now teaches] studied art in that department.) Dave, he worked in an impressionist approach. He emphasized seeing color and enjoying the paint for its own sake. We painted strictly on location. It didn’t rain much then so we got to paint a lot outside.
At Western [Oregon University – where Gary earned his BA] I was kind of rebellious. I just wanted to paint on location and do my own thing. I would be out on my own painting and then come back for critiques. Frankly, I wasn’t that teachable back then.
But when I went to graduate school [at the University of Arizona] I had two very influential teachers: Bart Morris and Bruce McGrew. Both were watercolorists and painters. We all had a similar aesthetic. They both emphasized drawing and interpreting the landscape – not in a picturesque way – but to find an interesting composition that wasn’t – was other than – “obvious”. They encouraged me to a more subtle use of color. When I first came from Oregon I was trying to use a full palette of primary and secondary colors. I tried to use that palette in Arizona. But even with an expressive use of color, I found that I needed to make regional considerations in the colors I used. I didn’t see it at first. My palette was being criticized. It wasn’t appropriate for the desert landscape. It took me a while to see that. So my palette became more subtle and learned to appreciate neutral colors as well. A rich neutral color can augment and intensify a primary or secondary color. I was also tending to a cubist approach – geometrizing everything – and there [at Arizona] the emphasis was more in the beauty of nature apart from geometry – not using geometry as a primary default.
Triggerfish: So you started out doing the desert landscapes. And when you came back to Oregon, I assumed that you started doing the series that featured forest scenes and streams?
GB: Well I just painted the landscape where I was. I painted primarily on location all through undergrad and grad. It was rare that I worked from photographs. But I occasionally – I started working from photographs for large studio works.
Triggerfish: But lately you transitioned to doing more urban based work…
GB: For about seven years I made my living off of doing paintings of streams – I sold a lot of those. Then I was doing some variations on landscapes to keep it interesting. Then I started needing a break from that. I needed to make a change. So I did a series of work I called metaphysical landscapes where I brought in these ethereal elements that spoke about the space around the landscape as much as the landscape [itself]. That can be seen as [a kind of] spiritual content. I enjoyed that for a while but I didn’t get much traction with it. So I then I started doing more diverse landscapes. And then, occasionally, I would put in a hint of a building and I started getting more interested in that. And so, instead of avoiding [buildings], I started looking for communal settings – community.
I have always enjoyed historic districts in cities and the architecture. But I didn’t want to dwell on perspective, which [had] seemed tedious [to me] in the past. I enjoyed the challenge. I started tweaking them a little bit, not worrying about getting every line straight. I want the perspective to look somewhat naturalistic, but sometimes I distort them a little bit so you can tell that they aren’t a projected image – not a mechanical drawing. Also I am very much about the texture and the surface and the transitions of large passages. I want to make that interesting. Making paths for textures and colors is a big part of what I do. That is one level of content. I have the subject content. And I have the color content and the composition is content and texture is content, and passage-way is content. Brush application and paint strokes are part of the texture and the passage.
Triggerfish: Is that something that was emphasized in your training?
GB: These are all things that came up in discussions in my classes – to different degrees at different times. Those things were not emphasized as a group or individually. All these things are not new. They are the things that I found important to add facets to my work. Good art has multiple layers. Just like life, it is complex. This is what makes life interesting. God is infinitely complex. That is why he is who he is. So when [my work] reflects the complexity of nature which in turn reflects the complexity of God, it is more interesting.
Triggerfish: Does what you choose to paint in this series have some sort of special meaning for you?
GB: Not typically. Usually they are historic because I like that element: something that has been around a while. There is not any inherent meaning that I assign to certain things.
Triggerfish: So it doesn’t matter that its Portland…
GB: No. I’ve done San Francisco, Salem. [But,] not much in Newberg [Gary’s current home].
Triggerfish: Are you using a camera to help compose your paintings?
GB: Yes, definitely. I am using the camera to compose or I’ll crop an image after I have printed it. I try to work from images that I see – there is a strong content that is taken from nature – from “life” so to speak.
Triggerfish: With the Urban Landscape series, do you ever make studies in the field?
GB: Yes, sometimes. Frankly, it depends on the weather. If it is good, I will paint on location.
For example, here is the same painting twice [The Governor I and The Governor II]. A watercolor version and the acrylic over here. Often I will do a watercolor first to see [how it will work]. I try the image and see if I like it. If I like it enough, then I will do the acrylic. That is a more involved process. It is a different set of problems.
Triggerfish: Looking at the two versions of the painting: the colors are very different in the two versions. What is some of the evolution between the two paintings? Or is there an evolution?
GB: I am not trying to reproduce the watercolor with the acrylic version. I like this painting and so I am going to do one in acrylic. I like looking at things with acrylic. I make deliberate changes. I wanted the color to be brighter in this one. You can get bright colors and heavier intensity with acrylic. With the watercolors you have to take what you get sometimes. But with the acrylic I can choose to bump up the color intensity. So I add another layer. I can zone in on a certain palette more.
Triggerfish: Is there a sense of narrative in your paintings? Either about the paint or what is being painted?
GB: Not really. Students often want to tell their story. Well that may be important to you. But as a painter it’s really about how you put the paint down. Story may be important to you and to some of the people looking at your work, but as painters, it about what you do with the paint. So I am not telling a story.
Now when I was doing pure landscape – which I did for many years – to me the landscape always speaks about creation and the Creator. And as I am thinking about the urban landscapes, mankind is using elements that God has created. Man reflects God. You can also look at it from the perspective that God created people to live in community. You can’t live by yourself very long. That [human community] is a very important part of creation as well, but it is once removed from God. It is creation playing itself out.
Triggerfish: But how do you see your urban landscape series expressing a sense of community?
GB: Well that is what I figured out as I started to look back on painting them and why I was doing them. I didn’t know this at first. Before that time, I certainly considered myself a friendly person. But I was also a shy person and something of an introvert. And I was feeling a need to get back into community – more involved in relationships. I started seeing this in my art and in my life too.
Triggerfish: So before, when you were doing “pure” landscapes, you saw painting as more solitary – just you, God and the landscape, but now it is different?
GB: Yeah. I mean you live in human culture. But I saw the landscape as a more pure expression of God. I still think that occurs in nature, but now I see more that God works out his plan in community. I see this now as more interesting than I did back then. I was more of a loner, I think. And I didn’t really enjoy drawing or painting people that much. I have students that love drawing people and thinking about what this person is feeling and thinking. But I am not interested in that. But I find that more interesting now. I enjoy doing figural work more. Not that – like my students – that I want to know what the person is feeling and thinking. But it’s more interesting to me than it was.
Triggerfish: Do you see yourself maybe going in that direction?
GB: Well I teach figure drawing. I may incorporate some figural elements into my work someday.
Triggerfish: What are you hoping that the viewer will be left with when they experience your art?
GB: Sometimes I think about that. Because I am doing all this work and I am wondering, “Why am I doing all this work? Is it just vain? Am I painting just because I like to play with color? What is the purpose behind it?” Earlier on I had a more clear purpose. My work pointed to God. But I do think that my current work speaks of my worldview as well, but it is a little more complex. My work is positive, I think. The sense of the color and the composition, I see it as, maybe, a celebration, or as a positive expression of human beings in community on earth. I see them as a celebration of culture. But you don’t see the people it; you don’t see the direct relationships. They are implicit. They’re subtly referenced. That is where I am right now.
Triggerfish: Do you want the viewer to think differently about the buildings, and trees and streams, etc. That they see in your paintings?
GB: Not really. I want them to enjoy them for what they are. I don’t want them to look at the landscape in a different way, but I want them to look at this work and say, “This is interesting, I am enjoying this for what it is: I am enjoying the color and the creative experience that is involved.” I want them – and I am thinking this out loud as I am saying this – to enjoy the colors, the history, to think perhaps about the people who may have lived there. I don’t leave narratives for them, but leave that potential. For example I am looking at this building now [in Gentrify II] and I intentionally had this second building back there – you see those two windows [in the blue building above the flat roof]…. That is very interesting to me. It is dark, [yet] you can see through. And you are seeing those electric lines on the other side. So I intentionally made that a focal point because that interior space says something. I don’t know exactly what that says. But I think it is interesting.
Triggerfish: It draws you in…
GB: Sure. It’s not frightening, but it is curious. It makes you wonder what is in there. Old buildings have this dawn appeal to me because they speak of the passage of time. And also the quality of the architecture – I think it speaks of history as well.
That is just one element. These are not about a story. Like Tim [Timmerman] my friend [and colleague–at George Fox University’s Art Department, and featured in TCR’s Issue #9] – he has these grand narratives. That’s not my work.
Triggerfish: But sometimes there is an implied narrative in landscapes that is not a story per se. Perhaps a bucket left in the field has some sort of meaning. “Why is that there?”…
GB: Well, for example, this painting here of the mausoleum [Hope]. Some people love that little trash can. Others say they love the painting, but they ask, “Why did you put that trash can in?” I intentionally left it there. The photo I worked from had it in there. I left it intentionally because I thought it said something. I didn’t think about what it said. But I thought I wanted it in there. So I didn’t assign a narrative to that but thought that it said something.
Triggerfish: So its not a purely visual element…
GB: Well it does mean something. It is a curious juxtaposition. I left it. I wanted it in there.
Triggerfish: What about the word “hope” in the top part of the mausoleum? That seems pretty loaded…
GB: The building that I painted, it didn’t have that word on there. It had the name of some family. So it was too depressing. It was sad to see a mausoleum and the cypress trees in a desert setting. So I put “hope” in there. So that element has a more direct spiritual reference. My work has a positive element to it because I have a positive worldview.
Triggerfish: So is that drifting toward being sentimental?
GB: I don’t think so. I think it needed that. It was too sad for me without that [addition]. Life can be very dark – very depressing. My work is not about that. But I enjoyed doing that imagery, approaching “the valley of the shadow of death.” But it needed that word in there. That, I thought, was an appropriate place for it. That is the type of thing you might see on something like that. Even when I started the painting, I knew it was too dark for me and I had to put it on there. And that is a rare thing for me. I usually don’t have a word on there like that [in my work].
[going back to Gentrify II]
I was just saying that the element of narration or narrative quality is just one facet. The fact that I pick imagery that could have a narrative interpretation… That little room. Why is that element there? Well I leave that up to you. It looked interesting to me. I would like to go inside and see what is in there. I like murder mysteries. There are things going on in there. But specifically I don’t have a story for it. It is just one small element, one facet.