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Wade Guyton runs pieces of linen, some 50 feet long, through massive inkjet printers.
Marrying traditional painting and technology, his work earned him a solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, no small feat for someone whose first New York show was just over five years ago.
Guyton’s work is also climbing in the art market: One of his paintings sold for more than $782,000 at Sotheby’s recent contemporary auction.
We met as he was photographing the exhibition. Wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and Nike high tops, Guyton, 40, took a break from the camera and walked me through the galleries.
Tarmy: When I came to the show, the people around me weren’t sure if these sofas were artworks or not.
Guyton: I wanted a place to sit in the museum. That was one thing that came up early on in our discussion about the installation.
They were saying, “Can we have benches in the show?” and I said, “If we’re going to have furniture, I’m just going to bring it from the studio and make it part of the show.”
The backs of the sofas mimic the seam of the paintings: all of the paintings are folded in half and put through a printer.
Tarmy: So you can sit on these couches, but the Breuer chairs over there are works of art?
Guyton: That is really funny. I bought those chairs on EBay (EBAY) -- it was an Enron liquidation sale. I meant to take them apart, but when I got them to my show in Zurich, they looked so good with the space, I decided I didn’t need to.
Tarmy: If only Enron knew how valuable their chairs could be!
Guyton: The funny thing is that we shipped them to the show in Zurich as furniture. If I had broken them here and put them in a crate to Zurich, it would have cost much more than to ship five $50 dollar chairs.
Tarmy: You’re primarily considered a painter, though?
Guyton: My work has entered into a discussion about painting, but I don’t think of myself as a painter even though I’m making these things that are, arguably, paintings and fit into a history of painting.
I didn’t study painting, and when I’m making them I don’t think I’m thinking as a painter. But the work is out there, and they’re being bought and sold and collected and shown as paintings, so they inevitably enter into that discourse.
Tarmy: How much do your pieces sell for at this point?
Guyton: I think there’s a big difference between the primary market and the secondary market, which is much higher. I don’t really know how that happens -- it doesn’t involve me at all.
Tarmy: You don’t follow your own market price?
Guyton: Not closely. I know people have been spending a lot of money -- I think someone bought something the other day for two or three hundred thousand dollars.
I mean, it doesn’t affect me. To me, it just seems like people have way too much money.
Tarmy: Do you know your own collectors?
Guyton: I have this great collector in Ohio named Andy Stillpass. He commissioned a fire painting for his fireplace. And he also owns other pieces of mine. He’s really playful, and lives in the work.
A lot of people just put the art in storage. He’s amazing, and he has relationships with artists.
Tarmy: Do many people commission work from you?
Guyton: No, I was sitting around with him drinking, and we both thought a fire painting over his fireplace would be perfect. And so that became a commission.
Otherwise, I don’t think I’ve done any other commissions.
Tarmy: What are some of the reactions you’ve had to the show?
Guyton: There was just a student group in here. The teacher asked if I could answer a few questions, and this one girl was like, “What do all of your paintings mean?”
I was like, “You’re going to have to tell me what they mean to you.”
And she says, “I think that this painting is about how the government burns down all the trees and is making the country really terrible.”
I was like “Oh, my God, wow! OK. That’s really provocative.”
She was young, I mean, under 10. I was like “Really? That’s what you think when you’re looking at this?”
Tarmy: What are some common misconceptions about your work?
Guyton: I think the misconception is that all of these are just happy accidents, and that the work is just “Oh, whatever happens, happens.”
And I think that’s a fine interpretation. It kind of enrages people, and if you want to believe that, it’s OK.
But I’m not really fetishizing the accident. I’m working to produce something that has rules or parameters, where things sometimes go wrong. So accidents occur, and they end up being in the work, but they’re not the goal of the work.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Jeremy Gerard on theater.
To contact the writer on the story: James Tarmy in New York: Jtarmy@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.