Gavin Fahey (b. 1992) lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Interview by Maria Owen.
Published July 13, 2020
MO: Hi Gavin – thanks for agreeing to chat with me. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where are you based and when did you start painting?
GF: I started drawing in January 2013. I was twenty years old and studying math and economics at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. Art as a whole was alien to me and I enrolled in foundation drawing simply to fulfill a graduation requirement. This course stimulated an interest in how we project form, light, and color from the three-dimensional world around us to the two-dimensional picture plane.
My fascination became both the catalyst for teaching myself to paint as well as the motivation for my undergraduate math thesis. The ideas presented in this thesis, which traced Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti’s “rediscovery” of a correct perspective in Early-Renaissance painting to the later development of the field of projective geometry, would ultimately serve as the source for my current paintings.
I spent my first three years after graduation working at a think tank in Boston and teaching myself to paint on the weekends. I eventually reached a point where I felt my skill was stagnating and I realized I needed to paint full time if I was serious about art. So, in 2017 I left my job and moved to Chicago, where I’m still based.
MO: Your most recent paintings depict religious iconography in collage with quotidian objects. In fact, this collage technique is prevalent in many of your paintings. Could you tell us more about this use of collage and overlapping in your work?
GF: The collage technique arose from the desire to place my work in the context of artists whose work I admired. My first three years as a painter were spent obsessing over Giorgio Morandi and Janet Fish, and I produced a slew of small still lifes exploring shape relations and extreme detail. Although I became more confident in my technical ability, my portfolio of “pantry-items on the kitchen table” existed in a vacuum, ignoring what I felt was a parentage of earlier artists. I wanted to create paintings in which the existence of Morandi or Fish was an essential prerequisite for my own work. I thus turned to painting as a reproductive act: copying the work of another artist and altering it piecemeal until something wholly new arose.
From 2017 through 2019, I accomplished my reproductions by copying a work as it appeared on my laptop screen such that the reflections on the glass screen became superimposed atop the copied work. This conceit was inspired by Brunelleschi’s “S. Giovanni and the Piazza del Duomo,” the first of his perspective demonstration pieces. At the places on the picture where the walls of the Piazza vanish into air, Brunelleschi laid down burnished silver such that the sky, moving clouds and all, would be reflected onto the picture plane. As Brunelleschi’s reflections bridged the gap between reality and the painted world, the reflections in my painting process created a link between the original work and my own.
Recently, however, I’ve moved away from these reflections. They felt too sincere. I spent the earlier part of the year interviewing at MFA programs and every interview ran the same course: here are my paintings and this is what they mean. At a certain point I stopped believing my paintings had to have an extratextual meaning. I instead wanted to create paintings where there anyone could discern a narrative. Trompe l’oeil allows me to create these tongue-in-cheek tableaux in which the “quotidian objects” are elevated to the same level of art as the Bellini reproduction I’ve tacked on my wall. In that sense I suppose it’s all a bit nouveau réalisme.
Finally, the central conceit of the trompe l’oeil is to fool the viewer into thinking the painted object is real. But the viewer isn’t dumb. The viewer knows it’s a painting. Hopefully the viewer, no matter their knowledge of painting or art history, becomes more aware of the materiality of the medium, the mark making, the color choices, and the restrictions of the canvas.
MO: Can you tell us about your studio setup and what a day of painting looks like for you?
GF: I live in a studio apartment above an Irish bar, sleeping on a Murphy bed and painting in the breakfast nook. It’s an old, narrow building with high ceilings and I have both north and south-facing windows. My space isn’t the biggest – I can just about fit a 48” x 60” canvas in the nook – but it offers an immense quality of light. I could conceivably paint from sunrise to sundown and have strong, consistent light the entire time.
In reality I’m not nearly that productive. I wait on tables five days a week. My serving shift will stop a good day of painting dead in its tracks at 4pm. The other two days, however, I’ll typically paint right up until sunset. I want my paintings appear as though the scene was painted from life, as though the painted objects are tangible. For me this can only be accomplished if I paint with natural light. I know it’s time to call it quits for the day once I have to turn on a lamp.
I’ve tried painting at night with fluorescent light, but it’s no good. I would reach a point around 11pm where the painting would seem rich and the colors might glow, and I would clean my brushes and go to bed a happy man. Then I would wake up the next morning and all the previous night’s work would look like shit. Maybe everything had shifted towards acid green. Maybe the lighting looked too severe. It was always something. The extra few hours of evening productivity were never worth the headache. Now I just work during the day and keep it at that.
Cynically, I also consider Instagram to be a major component of my practice. Instagram allows you to engage in personal myth-making to attract an audience to your work. As an artist you run into people who say I have to buy something from you before you become famous. The implication is that celebrity is something an artist should be striving for and, even worse, is essential for a successful practice. As much as I hate it, I think there’s some truth in there. Would 70,000 Instagram followers make me happy with my practice? Not really, no. But I do think it would make it hell of a lot easier for my practice to support me financially. Instagram also keeps me motivated to create new art. I see forty paintings a day on Instagram that make me jealous. I know comparing yourself to other artists will drive you mad, but I can’t help it. Jealousy is a powerful motivator. So much of my artistic effort is to defeat the voice that says ah shit, why didn’t I think of that? Honestly that’s what keeps me going.
MO: The current lockdown is impacting artists everywhere for better and for worse – How is the current climate changing your practice?
GF: I was immediately furloughed from my restaurant job once the lockdown started. I admittedly thought this was only going to be a two-week ordeal. I self-isolated at my studio in Chicago for the first several weeks, painting like a madman to try to make the most of my time before I had to return to work. Eventually I moved out to my parents’ house in the suburbs once it became apparent we would have this endless period of lockdown. That was in mid-April. I haven’t gotten any painting done since. I have all this time to paint and no idea what the hell I should be painting.
I’m to start the first year of my MFA in painting at Boston University this coming August, and I’m unsure how the lockdown will affect that. I haven’t had much contact with the program over the past few months, but last I heard it was still planning on starting on time. I suppose I should be looking at Boston apartments right now, but it feels impossible to make any plans further than two weeks out right now. Until then I guess I’m in the same wait and see boat with everyone else in the world.
Discover more of Gavin’s work at @gavin_fahey