'What's the minimum you can do to make a painting?'
Royce Weatherly lets his paintings—and oil paint itself—reveal the workings of time. Many of his painstakingly composed, hyperrealist still lifes take decades to complete. He acknowledges and even welcomes the medium’s natural pigment changes and the decay of the objects he depicts. Untitled (Black Walnuts #2), 2012, for example, shows walnuts rotting in their shells, and the blue rim of a coffee cup in another work might turn yellower with age. “I want to see if I make a piece,” the artist says, “that over time, as it yellows, it will become more gray and more like a shadow.”
Having worked on and off for years as an installer and conservationist for the Whitney Museum and other institutions, Weatherly, 56, knows a lot about how art materials can age. Born in North Carolina, he got his B.A. in political science and art from Wake Forest University, and then received an M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In the 1980s and early ’90s, he was a preparator at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, had a solo show at the then brand-new Gavin Brown’s enterprise, and soon found his work in a handful of private European collections. But then he disappeared from the art scene—or at least from galleries. He moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, where he still lives with his wife and two daughters, working in carpentry and art installation.
After a 12-year hiatus, Weatherly made a triumphant return last spring with an exhibition at Bushwick’s Bogart Salon, a space run by his longtime friend, the artist and gallerist Peter Hopkins. The show’s three Morandi-like still lifes of what Weatherly calls “dumb objects”—potatoes, rocks, walnuts, coffee cups—sold out, for $12,000 apiece. According to Hopkins, one buyer was Richard Prince, Weatherly’s friend from the Gladstone years. Prince purchased Untitled (Bupkis), a small 2012 oil on linen depicting spilled coffee in a Greek-deli cup and the cellophane wrapping from a cigarette pack against a white field. Weatherly’s new series of still lifes—one featuring lard and butter—was recently included in an exhibition that opened in April at Hopkins’s latest Bushwick venture, ArtHelix, where the artist is represented.
When selecting the everyday items that will become the subjects of his meticulous focus, Weatherly says he often asks himself, “‘What’s the minimum you can do to make a painting?’ A flower is too loaded, but a potato is good.” He then sets things up in his basement studio where seashells, coral, and cellophane cluster in careful piles. He paints slowly, over the course of months if not years, building up thin layers of paint to capture the arrangement and any weathering—of subject matter or medium—that occurs with time.
“Sometimes an object looks better as it gets older,” Weatherly says. “Everything around it will get richer and deeper. It’s all about slowing down and looking.”