Casey Gray

Casey Gray received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2010 and has shown extensively throughout the United States and abroad. Recent solo exhibitions include Park Life Gallery, San Francisco, 2015; Circuit 12 Contemporary, Dallas, 2014, and White Walls, San Francisco, 2013. Gray lives and works in San Francisco, CA.

The current speed of content creation and consumption has made it increasingly difficult to separate our focus from our periphery, our virtual experience from our physical. I’m interested in exploring the conceptual space created from the overlap of these platforms, and in creating work that acts as an interface between the two.

Working exclusively with acrylic spray paint, I have developed an approach to contemporary painting that is uniquely my own, through innovative, hand drawn masking techniques. In my work I construct fictional still lifes by combining seemingly unrelated objects sourced mostly from Google Images, into layered arrangements that hint at non-linear narratives rooted in personal symbology. I utilize historical painting tropes as a point of departure in my attempts to create a visual language that explores the fluidity of personal experience that is the contemporary landscape. In many ways, the works act as ‘rest points’ in my attempt to navigate the the complexity inherent in contemporary culture, and to find balance in my work and life.

Q&A with Casey Gray
by Emily Burns

Hi Casey! It’s so great to be able to chat with you about your work, I have been a fan for a long time. I am so curious about your process. You list aerosol acrylic as the medium for most of your paintings. Is there a particular type of spray paint that works best for you? From the photos, the surfaces of the paintings seem extremely matte, is this true when viewing the work in person?
I use the term ‘aerosol acrylic’ because it’s more specific to the paint I use, which is 100% acrylic. Aerosol is not a medium its an application technique, and ‘spray paint’ by itself is too broad. I’ve worked almost exclusively with Montana Gold spray paint for over 10 years now, which is specifically designed for fine art rather than graffiti. It’s lower pressure, archival and relatively safe for indoor use. I also use a variety of specialty products from other brands on a case by case basis, such as texture sprays and different metallics. The paint itself is mostly matte, but as it builds up it gathers more shine. I usually seal my work in a semi-gloss, scratch proof polyurethane varnish when its done that protects and unifies the surface in a beautiful way. 

Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin a painting and how do you create the compositions? Is drawing an important part of your process?
My process varies with different bodies of work and also between individual pieces. I don’t like to be too rigid with how I do things. I hand draw everything in my work, so yes, drawing is a very important part of the process, however that doesn’t always mean with a pencil though. I have an idea, and I find certain references for it online. Sometimes I’ll make a digital sketch or collage to figure out proportions. Other times I’ll simply start drawing and then figure out the composition as I go. Occasionally if I’m feeling stuck with a piece, I will email myself a quick photo of it, bring it into photoshop and play around with it until I’m ready to move forward. It’s a good way for me to work out ideas before committing to them in paint, since I can’t subtract something once its in a piece, only paint over it.

How do you choose your subject matter? Do you use source materials or references?
There’s no finite way that I choose subject matter. Things pop into my head or I see them on the street or on television or whatever. I spend a lot of time spiraling through Google image searches for reference material. The lack of hierarchy is interesting to me. A certain image might sit in a folder on my desktop for months before I actually figure out how to use it. 

What are the themes that you are most interested in exploring right now?
The overarching theme of my work has to do with organization; slowing life down to a more comprehensible or manageable understanding. All we really are is a collection of our experiences. With the current speed of content production and consumption, it becomes very interesting to explore this conceptual space perceived from the overlap of virtual and physical platforms. My goals lie in creating work that acts as an interface between the two types of experience, not to get to heady with it haha.

That being said, there are a variety of other less encompassing themes present in my work that I portray through symbolism usually. I use a lot of tropical ideas of leisure and vacation. My love of nature plays a very important part in my work. Travel, the search for happiness and new experiences. I could go on. 

Are you using any digital tools in the planning stages or to get a sense of color or composition? When using masking film, do you cut it by hand?
I’ve been using digital drawing programs since I was a little kid, and that influence of computers growing up has definitely had an impact on my aesthetic sensibilities. So yes, sometimes I will spend time developing digital sketches before moving to the panel. It can be a big help when deciding colors or scale of certain elements or testing quick compositions. There is a direct correlation between digital drawing and spray paint in my opinion, especially in the distance of the hand from the surface, the flatness, the speed and the limited 256 color palette.

There is an incredible amount of detail in many of your pieces. Are you hand-painting elements within the paintings or is everything stenciled?
Everything I do is drawn by hand, cut by hand and painted with aerosol. I wouldn’t call what I do stenciling, because that implies the the images are reusable and predetermined. While I still cut 90% of things out with an X-acto knife, everything is a one off, built up in layers to create depth and shading. You can’t do what I do with a simple stencil.

Some of your paintings are incredibly complex, how many separate layers are there for one of your larger works
Certain elements like a geometric flower might be just one layer, but within a large painting there could be up to several hundred individual layers. Generally, with any given object like a vase or a skull or something I try to limit to about four layers, otherwise the paint gets too thick and is really difficult to work with.

You have created a real sense of volume within the forms, while at the same time referencing a distinct flatness. Is flatness important to you?
Flatness is very important to me. I originally became interested in spray paint for its ability to mimic the digital platform, which is inherently flat. At the same time, I have a serious interest in surface and texture, so achieving a balance between the two is a constant struggle of mine.

Gradients seem to be an recurring element in your work. They are difficult to achieve, was that something that attracted you to spray paint as a medium? What other advantages does spray paint offer?
Gradients are something that came much later for me, more of an afterthought. They’re actually really easy to achieve if you know what you’re doing. Gotta use those fat caps. I don’t know if spray paint provides any advantages to be honest haha. I suppose it dries quickly, but thats about it. Overall its a pretty difficult medium to master, depending on your goals.

In an interview with The Hundreds you mentioned that your work moved steadily toward relative realism, and now that you have reached that point, it is starting to shift in the other direction. Can you elaborate on this?
Sure, yea. What I meant was that over time my work has gone from very flat and graphic to a very particular type of realism, about as close as I can get. So thinking about the arc of my work as a pendulum, it has reached one side of the period and is now starting to swing back the other way. Loosening up, giving up a bit of control, having an increasing interest in surface rather than depth of field. At least this is where my head is at, I can’t say that it’s completely apparent within my work quite yet.

What is a typical day like for you?
Typical day is up at 8am, breakfast with my wife, and in the studio by 945, unless I need to pick up supplies then maybe 1030. I keep pretty regular studio hours of 10am - 6pm every day, and am home to cook dinner by 630. This way my wife and I operate on pretty much the same schedule and maximize our time together, otherwise I would never see her. A tight deadline might have me putting in as much as 50 hours a week. I never work on the weekends. Gotta save time for life.

 What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
I almost always have some form of house music on in the studio; deep, progressive, disco, etc. If not that then maybe some soul or funk. Its hard for me to get my thoughts straight with podcasts. I would say the rhythm, consistency and emotional nature of electronic music is vital to my thought process and general happiness in the studio. It allows my thought process to grow with the music. So yes, VERY important.

What are some of the artists that you look at or feel that your work is in dialogue with?
Recently I’ve been looking a lot at this artist Cornelis Gysbrechts. He’s a Belgian painter from the 1600’s that made the most amazing trompe l’oeil works I’ve ever seen. I discovered his work on a trip to Copenhagen this year when visiting the National Gallery. I like to think that my work is in dialogue with a lot of artists from that time period. They were sort of the pioneers, while I am providing a contemporary take on many similar ideas and themes.

There is also a group of artists working today throughout the world that are increasingly interested in referencing the digital platform, and the removal of the hand from the work, at least conceptually. I think this has to do a lot with the fact that we, for the most part, were the first generation to grow up with computers. Ben Sanders, Michael Dotson, Clark Goolsby and Morgan Blair are a few interesting painters that come to mind.

Can you describe your studio and what makes your space work for you?
I moved to my new studio is in the Bayview / Hunter’s Point neighborhood of SF after my previous warehouse in the Dogpatch was demolished this year to make way for a giant luxury condo development. It was a severe downsize and the move was emotionally devastating at the time. It’s small but I’ve since learned to love my new space. What makes it work is that I’m the only person in the particular wing of the building so I don’t have to worry about spray paint bothering others. I also have 30 foot ceilings, and exclusive access to the landlord’s 800sqft woodshop which is right outside my studio door. I have my own private bathroom, which is nice.

What is the San Francisco art scene like and what brought you to/keeps you in the area?
I grew up in the Bay Area and on some level always knew I would live here. I officially moved here for graduate school at SFAI in 2008 and have been here ever since. The art scene here is strong and there are lots of incredibly talented people working, however the current state is evolving in a very strange way due to the influx of tech. While the high living costs have driven out a lot of artists, the community that still exists is very tight and supportive. It’s my opinion that the scene is in a state of transition, but hopefully with the reopening of the SFMOMA next year, and foundations like CAST (Community Arts Stabilization Trust) buying up buildings exclusively for arts organizations, the arts will start to thrive again in San Francisco. I’m optimistic.

Anything else you would like to share/Do you have any exciting news or shows coming up?
2016 is shaping up to probably be my busiest year yet with upcoming shows in New York, LA, Columbus and San Francisco. I’m very excited about a major two person exhibition with Clark Goolsby I’m having at Circuit 12 Contemporary in Dallas later in the year. I’ll also be included in a new book about spray paint, a couple magazine features and releasing some new prints in the coming months. Things are looking up as they say.

Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!

Thank YOU!

To find out more about Casey and his work, check out his website