Unbridled Muses focuses on zoomorphic figures. That’s notably different from much of your previous work, which focused on flowers and other plant objects. What led to that change, from floral to animal?
NG: I actually started with animals in my paintings and then moved away from them. I was doing normal animals—not conjoining them into zoomorphic figures. I was doing apes and chimpanzees and African wildlife and what-have-you. And then, for whatever reason, I just kind of stopped. I didn’t feel connected to it. I did beautiful pieces but that was it. Then I moved back to Tennessee from Asheville, North Carolina, and I moved during the springtime when all the redbuds and dogwoods and everything were in bloom and the tulips and what-have-you. I had forgotten how beautiful it was because I had lived in Chicago for so long—not a city of nature, basically. I was also getting very inspired by the Japanese and Chinese woodblock prints of the 13th century, and it’s all based on floral motifs and nature, a rearrangement of that. Then when I got back to doing animal figures, I felt that I had experienced enough of what I needed from the floral directly.
From the floral to these zoomorphic figures, one continuous aspect of your work has been the use of glitter, which you’ve told me about before. How did that start?
NG: I think it’s fascinating when you take a material that’s considered so juvenile or pedestrian or tacky or saccharine and redevelop its purpose into something completely different—you elevate it. It’s no different than taking silk and making, instead of silk shirts, tapestries. It’s how far you want to take the product. I also think glitter does things that physical paint can’t ever do: it introduces that whole idea of fairy tale and myth and beyond the idea of reality and what-have-you.
You’ve also said that you often don’t produce preparatory sketches before you begin your paintings. What does that bring to your work?
NG: Immediacy, energy, happen- and circumstance, the ability to make mistakes and work with them and find pleasure in them. The art is in the mark making and not in the planning. In my opinion, if I planned my paintings they’d be stagnant bands of boredom. When I make my marks, I make my marks because that’s what my body’s telling me to do.
Immediacy seems to play a pretty important role in your work and also in your personality, if you don’t mind me saying. Has that always been the case?
NG: Yes, I live my life to the fullest if I can. I don’t question the outcome because the outcome hasn’t happened yet. I can only question it or say I’m sorry after it’s done—after I’ve done whatever I’ve done. It’s the same with people as with painting: if I’ve made a mark and it does not work and it does not look right, I correct it somehow, but it’s usually done later on. It’s not usually corrected at that moment. I will let a mistake sit because sometimes a mistake can be the right move. You learn from your mistakes.
The pieces in the exhibition tend to contrast these realistic zoomorphic figures with this very surreal, dreamlike scenery. What can you say about these two contrasting elements, realism and abstraction?
NG: Well, two of them are the facts that—and this sounds like kind of a cop-out, but—part of the reason I do the abstraction is because I get so emphatically engrained in the detail that I need something that’s going to literally be the opposite to release whatever I’m doing in the painting. I think that full realism paintings are beautiful, but I also feel like they miss a connection. And it goes back to dreams: you call it childhood fantasy, but there is no such thing. A child cannot have a fantasy because a child has not lived long enough to know what a fantasy is because at that time the child’s mind works only in its own reality. So, what a fantasy might be for us, that child is experiencing it for the first, second or third time, and they make these wondrous things.
My paintings are about getting back to that, to the point of, “Why did we have to stop? When were we told to stop?” And I don’t think we ever really were. I think our “realities” became too real. That’s why we stopped living in those worlds as people. But, you know, artists didn’t stop, designers didn’t stop, even doctors, surgeons—there are certain fields where people refuse to stop because that’s where you get everything from. I think that it’s an adult’s fantasy but a child’s reality, and that’s the meshing of it. So the background and abstract parts are more organic and definitely more childlike, but then at the same time, it’s a contrived mark. It’s a very orderly mark that’s made. It’s not a frantic mark. And then when you go to the animals—the zoomorphic animals—those are actually painted in a very adult way, but it is still what a child could think of, laying back in the yard and suddenly imagining those things.
I understand that you have another show coming up in June. You seem to stay really, really busy. How do you keep it up?
NG: I work fulltime. I work fulltime as an artist and I do nothing else. The other thing, too, is that I suffer from manic depression. My body naturally stays on the manic side. I’m continuously going and moving and I fatigue every couple months. When I make my work, I do literally two, three, four shows—solo shows—in a block of maybe three months, and then I take off for two or three months, where I do absolutely physically nothing. I only touch a pen to write down my name or something like that. I will do nothing. So that’s pretty much it. I do that because I believe that, when it comes to you, you have to act on it. You have to take control and deal with it, because it’s the whole thing with, “What was I thinking of?” You get that moment later on where you forget what it was, but if you’re in that pendulum effect, you make it. And that reacts with something else, so you’ve got to do it and you’ve got to do it. Then there’s that point where your mind no longer has the capacity to grasp what you’re thinking anymore.
How did you and Vanessa Liberati come to this show? How did this show come about?
NG: Oh, I told her this is what I’m doing. To be perfectly honest, I’m very fortunate that I have galleries that believe in my work tremendously, and I’ve not had to ever come up with an understanding or an agreement or a projection with any of my shows. All the gallerists that I’m with I’ve been with for a very long time. I think the shortest has been over three years and the longest has been like ten years. When it’s time for me to have a show, I pretty much just bring in whatever it is. I might send an image or two of course. I do try to make each show symbolically its own show. Some of the things do carry thematically in a sense, but they’re still very different shows. This show here, I would never show this anywhere else. It’s committed to this show, and if it gets separated that’s fine, but this show will never be shown anywhere else—unless a museum wants it.
This is your first solo show in Chelsea. How does that feel?
NG: Like any other show. It’s the truth. If you’re going by the dealer, it’s very different. If you’re going by the crowd, there’s no difference. I don’t get nervous anymore because I’ve been around. I’ve been doing it too long. It’ really interesting that New York has—this might get me in trouble, so let me think this out carefully—New York has this idea that it’s the art world center and this and that. But when you’ve experienced enough in other cities, you realize that it’s really no different here than it is anywhere else where the art market is of a high value, a high level. It’s really the same kind of people, the same wheeling-and-dealing, the same stupidities, the same graces—all of that.
I kind of find it interesting that you say that because I can see where a lot of artists that have not had my experiences in the last ten years would come in here thinking this is great. I’m very appreciative, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not...it’s part of my career. It’s what I do, that kind of thing. Performing on stage in Chicago in theatre and then all of a sudden coming to Broadway: it’s a great thing that’s happening, but in reality you’re doing the same damn thing. You’re still doing your job. And that’s the thing that younger artists today aren’t taught. They’re all taught that they’re going to come out of school and be the art star. They’re all taught that they’re going to be the greatest thing on Earth or that they’re doing something different. First up, no one’s doing anything different—it’s impossible. Until there’s another atom discovered or this or that, nothing new is going to happen. But they’re not taught that this is a business. I run this as a very disciplined business. When I’m in my painting mode, I’m up by ten o’clock in the morning, I’m painting by eleven, I take a lunch and then I’m painting until two or three in the morning. There’s no breaking—once I’m in my studio, I’m in my studio. That’s how I can achieve the amount of works that I do. The other thing I do, too, is that I go between doing works on paper and painting, paper and painting. So there’s even a tactile sense, an odor, all of that in the room that will make the next round of work that I do more...I’m more placed in it because I’m not just dragging on from that last thing.
Nathaniel Galka's solo show, Unbridled Muses, is on view at Gitana Rosa through June 14, 2014