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Gavin's Underground

October Gallery Stroll: Tyler Spurgeon

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2011-10-24 -
Fall finally hit in a big way with low temp numbers at night, but this past Friday remained relatively calm for people to head out for Gallery Stroll. October is usually one of the biggest events of the year as it's known both for being mostly horror- and Halloween-themed to some extent, but also being the last pure-art event before the next few Strolls start to loom around another certain holiday. 
This month, we take ourselves slightly off the beaten path and over to Nox Contemporary on 400 West, where painter Tyler Spurgeon is currently holding his solo show of new works entitled Deficient. You can check out the exhibition until mid-November, but today we chat with Tyler about his career and art along with thoughts on the local art scene, plus feature photos from Friday night for you to check out here.

Tyler Spurgeon

Gavin: Hey, Tyler. First off, tell us a bit about yourself.

Tyler: Sure. I’m originally from a small town in southern Arizona but have bounced around the country in the years since. Now I own a house in the Millcreek area and call Salt Lake City home. My interests lately fall in the categories of economics, music, art, politics, sci-fi or whatever I happen to be reading at the moment. I’m more than happy to talk about these at any time to any poor sap who happens to be sitting next to me. I’m not sure what more you want to know, but I guess my art got your attention so let’s talk about that.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art and what were some of your early inspirations?

Tyler: Honestly, I didn’t really know a lot about art growing up. I knew that each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was named after a famous artist, but that was about it. I spent a lot of time drawing as a pastime, and my entire goal for the first half of my life was to make something look like the image I was copying from. I wanted to get better so I just started looking at other artists, mostly so I could see how they made their work and so I could steal their techniques. With each new artist I learned about, my understanding of what it meant to be a contemporary artist changed a little. Eventually it wasn’t enough to just make something that was technically proficient; it had to mean something, it had to have teeth.

Gavin: You started your education at Eastern Arizona College. What made you choose EAC and what was its program like?

Tyler: EAC was a good starting point for me at a time when I was looking to get back into school. The program had a few instructors in particular who really encouraged me to push my abilities beyond what they could provide with their program. I’ll always be grateful for that encouragement.
Gavin: To complete your bachelors you went to the Art Institute Of Chicago. Why the switch to such a specific school, and what were the big differences between those two?

Tyler: Moving to Chicago and going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was a big leap forward in my evolution as an artist. I was surrounded by a lot of talented artists, both instructors and fellow students. We all pushed each other to challenge our artistic boundaries. Not to mention we were all going to school in the shadow of the Art Institute of Chicago museum, which has an intimidating collection of contemporary art. As young artists, we knew we weren’t just competing with each other, we were competing with the artists on those walls. I would constantly find myself in front of "Figure With Meat (1954)" by Francis Bacon, just staring at one of the greatest paintings ever made.

Gavin: What pushed you toward doing paintings, specifically in the layered drip style you've become known for?

Tyler: As far as making paintings versus some other form of art, I don’t really see any hierarchy. I would love to make some fleshy, gooey sculptures as soon as I find the time and space. Painting just makes sense for the type of images I am creating. The scenes I’m creating right now simply couldn’t exist in reality, and therefore couldn’t be photographed. It would be impossible to sculpt the bodies merging with, and dissolving into, the background the way I do with paint on canvas. I find that being an artist is largely about solving problems, and for me painting presents the least amount of problems for what I am trying to do. As far as my painting style, I am always willing to embrace new materials and new techniques. I think the drips and the layers just come from the fact that I am constantly putting new things inside my paint to see how it reacts. I teach a class at the University of Utah, and I’m convinced my students must think I’m crazy. I’m always telling them to try out new materials, no matter what. I had a student bring in a painting he made with acrylic paint and Kool-Aid. It was a genius move, and I was super proud of him for pushing himself. In my own work, I mostly play with different viscosities of oils and solvents. My studio is equal part laboratory and construction site. So in any given piece there are a number of different mediums at work, and sometime the paint dries at different rates, so when I flip it around the drips run around the surface. To me, this echoes life and the process of creating rather than serving as any sort of aesthetic. Life is messy and out of control sometimes, which in a lot of ways is what my paintings are about.
Gavin: What's the process like for you in creating a new painting, from the first idea to final product?

Tyler: My process varies from piece to piece. For some, I decide to start carefully with preparatory sketches, and by organizing the color palette I want to use; other times, I dive in with reckless abandon. I usually have anywhere from three to five paintings going at any given time. So if I mix up a color for one painting, chances are that paint will get smeared onto the surface of other paintings in the room. The works have a dialogue with each other that way.

Gavin: Considering your style, do you tend to play around with your paintings a lot with texture and color, or do you usually have an idea of what you want to do and stick to that?

Tyler: I usually have at least some idea of where I want the painting to end up. I may start with an interesting figure position, or maybe I want to experiment with some color combination; but eventually I have to surrender my will to the work and what it needs to be successful. Sometimes it is best to loosen up and let your concepts mature on the surface of the canvas. If something just isn’t working, it takes a lot of courage to obliterate that section of canvas. It’s this process of working the painting over and over until everything is right that leads to the texture build up on each painting. When you look at my work, you get to see the history of each brushstroke and each layer of color as they are slowly considered and built up.
Gavin: What was the inspiration behind your different collections such as Meat, Pressure and Tension?

Tyler: The work in Deficient merges two of my recent bodies of work. The Meat series precedes my most recent body of work, the Pressure series, and initiates the concept of the individual as something to grade or consume at will. The Pressure series builds on this with a more representational exploration of how pressure, oppression and other influences impact the individual. Rather than viewing the issue from the outside through metaphor, this series takes the concept to the level at which the individual feels the weight. It’s personal and experiential, whereas the Meat series is cold and detached. As far as how this work relates to previous works, that is a great question. My work has always centered on the figure, but I’ve never abstracted it to this level. This is also the first time I’ve addressed this particular subject matter. In previous bodies, I have used science fiction and other elements as a facade or artifice. This recent work removes those barriers, letting the work be more vulnerable and honest.

Gavin: You came to Utah in 2008 to get your MFA at the U. Considering the various colleges you could have attended at this point, what made you choose the U?

Tyler: Honestly, attending the University of Utah for grad school wasn’t pre-planned. It just happened to work out that it was a strong fine-art graduate program in the city my wife and I had just moved to. It has been a great experience, though, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.
Gavin: What was it like for you breaking into the local art scene during this time and getting reactions from the public?

Tyler: Salt Lake City has a remarkable amount of talent. I’m grateful that the local scene has been so willing to embrace the work I am putting out. The work I make is pretty challenging for a lot of people who are new to contemporary art. They see a lot of red paint and twisted bodies, and it takes a second look for someone to gauge the message they are getting from my images. Often people tell me how disturbing my images are. I think my work tends to be very polarizing, although I don’t intend for it to be. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it seems like the people that like my work really like my work, while the rest of my audience just isn’t quite comfortable with it yet. And that’s totally fine.

Gavin: Having displayed your work around the country, what would you say separates our art scene from others?

Tyler: I don’t know that Salt Lake City is different per se than others places I have lived. The closer to you get to California, the more popular juxtapoz seems to be. Places like Seattle and Salt Lake City have a pretty healthy low-brow vibe. And the closer you get to New York, the more entrenched those communities seem to be with the previous generation of artists that made a name for themselves. A city like Chicago was basically a haven for the entire Midwest. Young hipsters from Indiana and nearby states would flock to Chicago because it was the only happening place in miles and miles. I get that same vibe from Salt Lake City from time to time. I’ve met a lot of people from Idaho, Wyoming and surrounding areas who migrated to Salt Lake in order to live in a place that is progressive and allows them to get a taste of what it feels like to live in a more urban environment. I think people in SLC really mean it here, and those who are in are genuinely committed to the scene. I’m always really impressed by that.
Gavin: Tell us about the works you have on display for this Stroll.

Tyler: The show at Nox Contemporary is a response to the way our society forces individuals to conform or submit to expectations. I don’t know a single person who has been able to escape this social pressure, which makes the topic a very universal issue. Everything from race to gender to sexual orientation, all of which the individual has no control over, play into how you are treated and how you are expected to behave. Even more controlled associations such as socioeconomic status or religion greatly affect one’s sense of external measurement. I grew up with, and continue to deal with, a very complex set of expectations. Recognizing this, I am forced to reconcile the difference between what I am and what I am expected to be. This imposed sense of inadequacy stems from somewhere, and Deficient explores that. When we objectify women or deny rights based on various demographics, oppression cycles about in society until it revisits the source. We hold up machismo as some sort of ideal, but I see it as yet another unsuspecting form of oppression. We create boxes for each other, and tell one another that we have no choice but to exist within those parameters. It’s a vicious cycle that one can’t escape without ejecting his or herself from society completely. For me, given the alternative, creating artwork that deals with this issue seemed like the more responsible manner to open dialogue.

Gavin: What are your thoughts on being displayed at Nox Contemporary and working with John and Emily?

Tyler: John and Emily are great. They have been super supportive of me, and I can’t say enough good things about them. Nox Contemporary is a great asset to Salt Lake City. A lot of galleries, not just here but all over the country, end up running into financial trouble and shutting their doors. John has set up Nox in such a way that financial obligations don’t dictate the gallery’s direction. This frees him from worrying about showing work that is easy to digest, and in turn allows him to display more challenging, progressive shows like Deficient. I could never get away with building a meat locker in a gallery that was first and foremost concerned with turning a profit. Nox is a gallery that puts the priority on the art, which is the way it should be. Nox significantly adds to the art conversation happening in this valley, and in the end Salt Lake City wins.
Gavin: Touching on local art, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?

Tyler: The biggest hurdle that I see Salt Lake City facing is trying to reach that critical mass of strong art and art patrons where it just becomes self-perpetuating. This problem is exacerbated when good artists decide that they have no future here and move to another city. This hurts Salt Lake City and also keeps that artist from really having an impact in a growing city. Because the art scene here is small and still growing, each new artist has an amazing opportunity to get out there and make a name for themselves. They can help shape the future of our town in a way that just isn’t possible in a larger city like Chicago or New York. This can be frustrating if you are young and hungry and just want to blow up. As only a new transplant to Salt Lake City, I already feel very invested. I own a house, I’m committed to furthering contemporary art here, and I don’t want good artists to leave because I want them to stay and help us put SLC on the map. It’s totally possible, and that makes living here really exciting.

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make things more prominent?

Tyler: Everything is an individual choice, and we need lots of individuals choosing to support the cultural development of this city. For me, that means that each piece of art I make needs to be professional grade. It needs to be able to compete on a national level. If I want my art to survive and carry significance outside of this valley, then it needs to be bigger than some inside joke, and it can’t be just a one-liner. I look at an artist like Angela Ellsworth and I see a very mature attempt to handle her own issues with her past, and with religion in general. In contrast, I still see a lot of examples of work in Salt Lake that are shallow and juvenile attempts to dismiss very complex topics. I think if Salt Lake wants to be taken seriously as a major center of art and culture, then we need to start taking our artwork seriously.
Gavin: What's your opinion on Gallery Stroll today and the work being displayed each month?

Tyler: I love Gallery Stroll. It is absolutely essential to have some sort of organized event that gets people excited about looking at art. My only real complaint is that so many of the galleries are isolated from each other and it takes a very dedicated individual to hit each major gallery in one evening. I think as more and more galleries and venues commit to showing new art then we will see that critical mass I spoke of start to emerge. As it is currently, there aren’t enough spaces to showcase the local and regional talent. Galleries become a mish-mash of different styles and wildly diverse artists. Take a gallery like Phillips for example: Each artist on its roster is a distinguished and talented artist, but there is no real cohesion beyond that. As a result, each gallery stroll ends up being a grab bag, and I tend to follow particular artists as they drift from one space to another, instead of following certain galleries. If I knew a gallery had a particular agenda and they where trying to actively contribute to a particular aesthetic or dialog, I would be there every month regardless of the artist being shown because I would trust the gallery. As it is now, I try to support all good art but tend to cherry-pick my gallery visits based on the artist being shown at the moment.

Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of this year and going into next?

Tyler: Putting together a solo exhibition, like the one at Nox, can be as much work as creating the paintings. I’ve had a number of shows in the past few months, and as exciting as the exposure is, I’m really eager to get back into the studio and re-focus on creating new paintings. I actually have six new supports sitting in my basement just begging for me to throw some paint around. Even as I try to focus on answering this question, there is a part of me that won’t stop envisioning different possibilities for those blank surfaces. My next body of work will be less inhibited. I still have a lot of voices in my head from going through the MFA program. I have a ton of respect for my instructors there, but too many influences mid-process can drive a person mad. Eventually you need to take a step back and start creating something that is pure and lives up to your own expectations. I would never say that I’ve pulled my punches with my current work, but I do think that I am working with some concepts that can be pushed much, much further.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Tyler: No, thanks. The Downtown Farmers Market and public transit are pretty cool, though.


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