Surrealist Natura Morta: In conversation with Charlie Goering

“If anyone had told me back in 2017 that I would be making small still lifes, I would have called them nuts,” says painter Charlie Goering. Charlie’s current work is dramatically different from the highly representational and brooding figurative scenes he was creating back in 2016. Tracing the trajectory of his work over these years, one follows a trail of experimentation and inquiry into the parameters of painting. Figure drawing however remains at the core of Charlie’s practice, not always in subject matter, but informing his calculated and precise approach.

The subtle and experimental still lifes that Charlie is currently producing strike a fine balance between classically appealing object studies and conceptually interesting compositions. The objects are rendered in delicate, precise brushstrokes that at once render them life-like and draw attention to their artifice as flat painted reproduction. The subtle interplay between space and form, flatness and three-dimensionality, is the real subject of Charlie’s paintings. Self-referential, the paintings play with the limits and possibilities of flatness within the compositions and the medium itself. The intentionally ambiguous relationship between the objects depicted – candle sticks, sea shells, ceramic vessels, post cards depicting artefacts of antiquity – adds to the subtle strangeness and playfulness of the paintings. These objects tend towards a narrative but stop short, evading symbolic reading and instead remaining simply formalist signifiers.

Charlie was born and grew up in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. He received his BFA from Laguna College of Art and Design during which he spent a summer at the Florence Academy of Art honing his drawing. He has presented two solo exhibitions and participated in several group shows around the country. He is currently based in Cincinnati, OH.

photo by Jonathan Medina

AMM: Hi Charlie! Have you been working during the pandemic? Has this affected you or your art at all?

CG: I have been pretty productive, all things considered. Having lived in upstate New York in the countryside, relatively isolated for most of last year, I felt prepared for more isolation once COVID hit when we were back in Cincinnati.

AMM: You’ve been making art since you were young. What have been a few of the major lessons you’ve learned over the years and how have these impacted your work?

CG: Evolution, growth, and acceptance are a few major things over the years I have focused on. I realized early on that learning more about myself, art, and the world around me pushes me to try new things. Being wildly creative and following my interests at any given time has served me well.

AMM: You’re a classically trained figurative artist. What has been your experience finding your place within this very established and ancient painting tradition?

CG: In recent years I have begun to look outside of the ‘classical’ figure tradition, while acknowledging most of my skills were developed in that tradition. I found the culture around ‘classical’ figuration limiting to my influence and open-mindedness. However, figure drawing still remains a core part of my practice and is something I enjoy doing regularly to keep my eye fresh.

AMM: As a student you received a bursary to study at the Florence Academy of Art. What was this experience like?

CG: Yeah, so in 2014 in the middle of my studies at the Laguna College of Art And Design, I studied at the Florence Academy of Art for a summer and a trimester. While I was there I made long lasting friendships, drank a lot of wine, gained a deep admiration for Italian painting, and spent most of my studies honing my drawing skills. The experience as a whole ended up being very formative for the ambitious work I would paint once I returned to California.

Mystic, oil on board, 30.5 x 23 cm

AMM: Can you share with us some of the fundamentals of classical figurative drawing and painting? How do you develop your ‘eye’ for proportions?

CG: This is a long and in-depth conversation. I would start by saying there are many different answers to this question and throughout my education I was exposed to multiple approaches from various instructors. What I have always focused on myself is synthesizing these approaches, copying paintings/ artists I admire, and building an intuition for proportion, form sense, design, etc. I think in the end an artist’s instinct, an idiosyncratic approach to depicting the human form, is what makes a figure painting or drawing engaging.

AMM: In what ways does art history inform your work?

CG: My love of art history, as well as the ideas and thoughts that drive that history, are engrained in what I do. I constantly make nods to artists, movements, compositions, and styles within my paintings. I like precedent for what I am making, and enjoy contextualizing work as well. I have recently begun an XY graph of painters I refer to as a Nexus. This organizes artists from Abstract-Figurative (X) and Decoration-Narration (Y). Within this Nexus I can place artists on a level playing field to better understand the visual language of each painter and their relation to one another. The idea is to flatten art history instead of following the linear history model normally presented. Admittedly the Nexus is limited in scope at the moment, so I hope to expand it in the coming years.

AMM: Over the years you seem to have experimented with different styles and subjects in your paintings. While in your earlier work you seemed to use figuration to explore narrative compositions, your more recent work has become increasingly experimental and impressionistic. Please tell us about this stylistic and conceptual arch of exploration in your work.  

CG: For me, I think leaving the ‘classical’ figurative tradition behind and instead viewing it as a foundation has driven most of this exploration. The ‘classical’ figurative tradition can be very staunch and conservative. That’s not where I align ideologically, so it’s important for me to find influence and inspiration through all of art history. There is so much good work out there that it would be a shame to miss out on understanding it better. Artists I have recently come to admire are David Byrd, Bob Thompson, Jess, Jane Freilicher, Hilma Af Klint, and Forrest Bess to name a few. These new influences help me pursue experimentation which can set off a chain reaction of ideas resulting in an ouroboros way of working; let the work beget new work.

Roman Portraits, Oil on Book Cover, 55.88 x 36.2 cm

AMM: Your series of brightly coloured surreal paintings from 2018 – what ideas and concepts informed this body of work and what function did the arch play in this visual language?

CG: The arch series was my first attempt at vivid color. The initial move towards the arch as motif came from Italian fresco painting, and was first used in my painting Night Falls in the Middle West. After finishing that painting I found myself ready to move on and try something new. The arch motif carried over. My aim was to tackle color in a way that did not require the stress of figuration, as well as challenge preconceived beliefs I held about painting. The arch also helped to break ties I had with perceived reality and showed me what I was capable of as painter. I am immensely proud of those paintings because that series served as the building blocks for what I’m currently making.

AMM: Please tell us more about how you use color in your work.

CG: Color was a hard piece of the painting puzzle for me to place. After learning from a friend about the Munsell Color System, I then had a conceptual framework for color and color mixing. I also adhere to some loose principles of complimentary colors when choosing a ground color and the colors used in the painting. All things considered, I tend to find that the arranging of objects, the framing devices used, and backgrounds inform my color choices. If the color in a painting feels garish to me I will rework that color in the painting or set up until I feel a harmony. This results in making a lot of paintings, for better or worse, and seeing what sticks.

AMM: For the most part your brushstrokes are imperceptible but in a few paintings you try out more gestural mark-making. Please speak to us a little about your approach and thinking behind mark-making.

CG: This usually isn’t intentional. A lot of the moves I make in a painting are dictated by the painting as a whole, or what object is being painted. Certain objects and the light in a painting can dictate a specific surface quality, but overall I am just trying to see what is before me so I can make an engaging painting out of it. So, if it works, it stays.

Garden, oil on canvas, 35 x 27 cm

AMM: In your figure drawings and paintings, who are the people in your artworks? Is there a story behind each one?

CG: Everyone included in my figurative paintings are either a friend, myself or my partner, with the exception of a few derived from images found online. Most paintings do have a story behind them, however I try to allow the viewer, prompted by the title, to extrapolate meaning or narrative.

AMM: You’ve been paintings still lifes – another major subject from the art canon – Please tell us more about this.

CG: These paintings were born out of circumstance. If anyone had told me back in 2017 that I would be making small still lifes, I would have called them nuts. Because of a precarious financial situation after my residency, getting married, moving to Spain and then to New York with one primary earner, I found it hard to justify the cost involved with making large, grand paintings. In addition, my life and my inner being were too quieting down because of my partner’s ability to bring out the best in me. The large angst filled paintings I made during undergrad and the brief period thereafter felt further in the past. I went to therapy, slowed down my life and naturally, my paintings followed suite. I am immensely proud of the still lifes I make today and I think they reflect my sensibilities. The size and scale is a cue taken from Morandi and Forrest Bess. I have heard my new work characterized as a Surrealist Natura Morta, a compliment I will surely take.

AMM: What are some of the themes or ideas you’re currently exploring in your work?

CG: The resonance between objects, the unspoken relationship between things no matter how strange the paring, has become a focal point of the work I am making. Drawing odd parallels or bringing attention to the form of an object that may have little significance has been a really great way to look past the expected still life modes. I also think a lot about the role a flat image plays in a still life. Trying to take the flat image and give it as much presence as the other objects is really important to my paintings. I think a lot about color, light, space and compositions these days as well. All these things within the rectangle in just the right place are very satisfying to me.

AMM: This year you’ve introduced a collage element into your work. Please tell us more about this and what the spikey shape represents that appears in all these works.

CG: So, when composing my still lifes, I tend towards flattening space when I arrange objects. I do my best to NOT paint the meaning of the object but rather just its formal qualities. For example, if I’m painting a video game cartridge, I don’t want the painting to be about the video game, rather, about its form alone, therefore breaking any connotation, and settling that form within the composition. Though I admittedly know very little about collage, the exploration of taking things out of their contexts, and finding the resonance between flat shapes and images has informed my paintings. So, the practice seems to be the next logical step to sketch and further hone these ideas.

AMM: Over the years you’ve received a number of accolades, grants and been awarded studio residencies. How have these experiences influenced your practice?

CG: I am very grateful for these opportunities I have been given over the years. Each accolade has given me the confidence and, sometimes the financial backing to pursue the work I wanted to make then. These opportunities have kept me from holding down a day job for any extended period of time, so I could focus on developing my work.

Ducks & Knife, oil on canvas, 38 x 40.5cm

AMM: You’ve also taught abroad at the Barcelona Academy of Art. What was this experience like?

CG: Barcelona was tough for my partner and I. Just recently married, we poured most of our savings into making the move, and she was unable to secure employment in the country. Though I really, really loved teaching, it just was unfeasible for us to remain in Barcelona, because of the high cost of living.

AMM: Do you have any studio rituals that inform your way or working?

CG: As someone with a home studio, I paint just about every day. My father is a classical guitarist, and to this day he practices daily. This ritual of showing up for better or worse took time for me to adopt myself but I find it to be the most helpful for a sustained practice. The other thing I do is try my best to set up the next day’s still life (if that’s what I’m tackling) so when I head up into my studio I have a starting point for the day. The objective of the day can, of course, change but it helps me to carry the energy from one day into the next.

AMM: What are you busy with in studio right now? What’s working, or perhaps causing you challenges?

CG: I think exploring the figure with any sort of conviction again has been immensely challenging. The figure feels so loaded to me right now that I find it hard for me to say anything meaningful through it. The world is a complex place and I would like to be mindful of the figures I depict, as well as how and what they are conveying. Though painting still lifes has taught me that I can arrange objects freely and intuitively, figures weighed down by history cannot be used in quite the same way.

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?

CG: I am very into old video games, and collecting them. It was a huge a part of my childhood, and as an adult it’s very comforting to build the collection I always wanted as a kid. My partner and I also maintain a greenhouse in our back yard as well, and the care for many houseplants. In addition, I have begun to find an interest in curating. I love the work other people make so much and there are countless great artists that I draw energy from. I am passionate about sharing artists of all types that I enjoy through Instagram, trying to elevate all of us.

AMM: Everything is still so uncertain, but do you have any projects or exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

CG: As much as I would love to have an answer to that question, right now I am working hard in my studio to build up a backlog of work while self-promoting on Instagram. Opportunities to share my work in ways such as this, help me to expand my audience, for that I am grateful!

Find out more about the artist: www.charliegoering.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Still Life, oil on canvas, 143.5 x 101.5 c