Greg Kwiatek Atelier
MONSTERS OF THE DEEP
THE SEAWEED PAINTINGS OF GREG KWIATEK
A group of four paintings from this series were included in the exhibition
6 Billion Perps Held Hostage! (Artists Address Global Warming) which
I curated at The Andy Warhol Museum in 2007. I chose to exhibit these paintings because I believe they suggest the effects of climate change
on an often-overlooked feature in our natural world.
Seaweed is an absolutely essential link in the food chain of Earth's great oceans, though it is often ignored by humans except in the cuisine of Japan and other Pacific Ocean island nations, yet the images Kwiatek found in seaweed are quite shocking. The artist refers to them as demons, which suggests to me the terrible dangers (demons or monsters, in a sense) that science predicts are facing our world.
These dangers are due to the evolving changes in the Earth's climate brought about by our reliance on burning fossil fuels. The burning of these fuels emits "greenhouse gases" such as methane and carbon dioxide, which become trapped in the atmosphere, causing the ambient temperature to steadily rise, glacial ice to melt, causing sea levels to rise, and sea temperatures to change and the oceans to acidify; all of this affects life on land, too, as equatorial regions become too hot to inhabit, and islands barely above sea level suddenly are overwhelmed by water.
As it has for millennia, the Earth's lush plant and animal life will evolve and adapt to these changes: some organisms will relocate to more suitable climates, suddenly appearing where they have never been seen before
(possibly bringing horrible diseases with them); others will adapt in more subtle ways to their immediate locale. Changes in the temperature of powerful ocean currents, such as the expected cooling of the North Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream which warms Northern Europe, will bring more severe winter storms to Europe.
Just as the science of climate change is suggested in these works of art, they also hold diverse references to art history, reflecting the artist's long and careful study not only from academic coursework and independent reading, but also through his many years as a security guard on the night shift at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This experience of walking the galleries in near-solitude, night after night, provided enormous opportunity for the study of a limitless number of masterpieces.
His supervisor once instructed Kwiatek and his fellow guards to look
very carefully at every inch of the paintings in one special temporary exhibition, devoted to the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).
While the purpose of that instruction is rooted in the duties of a museum security guard, for a painter it was a rare and marvelous invitation.
With the Seaweed series, Greg Kwiatek has fused varied strands of personal experience, thought, emotion, science fiction, film, and current events.
Monsters in Maine
The Seaweed series is somewhat unusual for the artist in that while
the subjects are found in nature, the paintings are based on Kwiatek's photographs of the seaweed clumps which the artist noticed were figurative and suggestive of monsters, along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean during his frequent extended summertime visits to Louds
Island in Maine, the most northeastern of the fifty United States of America.
Science Fiction and Hollywood
The seaweed monsters in these paintings do not resemble the sea monsters we are familiar with, such as those of a Jules Verne story,
for example, the giant octopus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
That science fiction tale was made into a Hollywood spectacle starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason in 1954, and was quite popular in American culture during Kwiatek's childhood (he was just starting
school when the film was released). The artist is a great aficionado of
the movies, and those two iconic actors (Douglas and Mason) are
among the favorites of his youth, so the connection is not as strange as
it may appear. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kwiatek's monsters
seem to resemble those of other sci-fl films.
Maine: Modernist Macro vs. contemporary Micro
There is a long tradition of American artists visiting Maine to paint; perhaps the most significant historical artists who spent lengthy
periods there absorbing the tremendous natural beauty of the immense landscape are the early Modernists John Marin and Marsden Hartley. Their macro interest in the vast pine forests and dramatic rugged coastline runs counter to Greg Kwiatek's micro interest in the small clutches of seaweed tossed about by the ocean currents to be wedged between rocks or otherwise left behind by the tide.
Seaweed and the Moon of Maine
While working in Maine, the artist has also engaged in a large series of paintings of the Moon, the celestial body that determines the oceans' tides. The Moon's influence upon the tides has helped to determine how the seaweed is deposited on the shore. Several paintings in the Seaweed series include an image of a full moon.
The Presence of Hollywood Monsters in the Artist's Youth
The relationship between a full moon and monsters calls to mind another Hollywood film, The Wolfman; in the film's well-known plot, a man transforms into a wolf-man during the full moon. Old horror films such as The Wolfman (1941), Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy
(1932) and many more were screened often on American television in the artist's youth, particularly on the local Pittsburgh TV program Chiller Theater which specialized in presenting horror films. The program was broadcast weekly, and was hosted by Bill ("Chilly Billy") Cardille from 1963 to 1983. Perhaps an obvious film in this genre with a connection to the Seaweed paintings is Creature from the Black Lagoon (also 1954)
Moonwatchers (2007, oil on linen, 30 x 40 inches)
A painting in the collection of Dirk Schroeder, Moonwatchers, seems
to acknowledge the relationship between the moon and the seaweed,
as groups of seaweed-monsters surround on three sides the nocturnal reflection of the Moon in water. The title of the work suggests that
the seaweed figures are studying the moon, glowing brightly in the night sky. A more perhaps poetic analysis of this painting could be that the seaweed figures are gazing up at their distant keeper, the Moon, which pulls on their watery domain.
Twilight (2004, oil on linen, 64 x 84 inches)
The Moon is a visible presence in at least four more Seaweed paintings: Twilight is also in the Schroeder Collection. In this painting, some seaweed figures are stacked totem-like in a crowded landscape, while others lay prone on the ground with the sea's horizon in the distance and the disc of a small full moon near the center of the painting's top edge. Several of the figures have paired-off and seem to be deep in dialogue, catching up on the day's activities, perhaps, or making plans for the future?
Twilight (Bosch and Picasso)
In any case, the great variety of these figures (a few seeming to consist only of floating heads), their expressions, and postures recall those
in Hieronymus Bosch's bizarre Northern Renaissance masterwork The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510). Additionally, the color palette
and composition of Kwiatek's painting recall some of Picasso's paintings of surrealist figures cavorting on the beach, dating from the 1930s.
AK 47 (2004, oil on linen, 64 x 84 inches; Velazquez)
Kwiatek reveals another subject from art history in his AK 47. While
the title references one of the most common weapons of contemporary warfare, this Seaweed painting includes the artist's copy of Diego Velazquez's Portrait of a Little Girl, ca. 1640, which is held in the collection
of The Hispanic Society of America, in New York City. With a small bright full moon floating above her, the little girl's head and shoulders portrait -no longer constrained by its close rectangular cropping - floats freely at the right of center on a dark blue ground suggesting the evening sky, amidst a group of perhaps fourteen seaweed figures in a range of poses.
Funeral at Midnight (2003, oil on linen, 64 x 72 inches; Leonardo)
A third Seaweed painting which includes an image of the moon is Funeral at Midnight. Among its approximately fourteen figures, two in the lower left corner are quite similar to each other, and also bring to mind some of the grotesque portrait drawings by Leonardo da Vinci of individuals with greatly exaggerated facial features, in this instance, an enormous hooked nose. This might be the most significant art historical reference for the Seaweed paintings, although they depict imaginary monstrous forms, which are -as they were for Leonardo - found in nature.
Platoon (2005, oil on linen, 72 x 64 inches; Warhol)
The fourth Seaweed painting with an image of a lunar disk is Platoon. In this work, subtle variations are found on a single seaweed figure which
is repeated in a loose grid (five across and three high). The bright moon appears near the center of the top row. To our eyes in 2015, the obvious reference is to Andy Warhol, a hallmark of whose work is a single image repeated in a grid. Warhol, like Kwiatek, was a native of Pittsburgh, where they both received Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees from Carnegie Mellon University before moving to New York City to pursue their work in the art capital of the time. The title of the work is a military term for a small company of soldiers, usually numbering at least 15.
Genesis of the Seaweed paintings
The artist writes, "The seaweed figures came into my life in 2000. I saw them for the first time on the shores of Louds Island. At the time I didn't know what I would do with them, but I saw them as demons and a dark force upon the world. The sea was giving me something to work with. The first seaweed paintings that I made in 2001-02 were of single figures. They were the color of ash and they were my response to 9/11."
Kwiatek has lived in the New York City area since 1987. The ash color refers to the ashes that filled the sky and then blanketed the ground
as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center burned and fell on that terrible morning. Kwiatek recalls his experience of that time in detail,
"On September 11, 2001 I left The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) at about 8:20 AM, walked across Central Park and took the subway down
to West 4th Street. I was on my way to the pool for a swim. When I came out of the Station near Carmine Street, a crowd of people was standing there. We saw smoke shooting out from the Towers. I stood there with the crowd for a few minutes and then moved on, not knowing what had
actually happened until I heard about it at the pool. After that I just stopped. I couldn't get home. I was tired, so I went into a garden owned by St. Luke's Church on Hudson Street, and laid down on a bench for a while. I couldn't sleep. I saw armies of people walking North on Hudson Street. Finally, I got up. Made some calls. I was able to make contact with a college classmate, Margaret Jones, who said that I could come over to her place on East Sixth Street. I walked there, and fell asleep. Later that night, I walked the 80 blocks back up to the Museum from her apartment. There were military personnel everywhere. Everything was shut down. Of course when I got to the Museum, the Profile was intense security mode. In the days that followed, I went to the World Trade Center area. Everything was blocked off, so I couldn't get very close. I shot some photographs but nothing significant, but it was here that I got the idea to make paintings the color of ash."
Max Beckmann and Claustrophobic Space
The Seaweed paintings evolved from single-figure into dense multiplefigure works influenced by the paintings of the great German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950). The Museum of Modern Art held a Beckmann exhibition in 2003. Kwiatek writes, "I was struck by Beckmann's use
of claustrophobic space in his paintings. He populated the work with multiple figures, as many as he could fit into the space of the paintings. This led me to the large works that I made between 2003 and 2008." Typically, Kwiatek squeezed about fifteen figures onto these canvases.
Artists are often highly aware of the larger events in the world around them, despite the frequent characterization of them as working in isolation. Current events in the world of the time hold an important role in the Seaweed paintings, particularly the military conflicts in which the United States was involved. This is most evident in the titles of several works: most obviously AK 47, and Platoon; and less obviously Al Amel, Red Zone, and Burning Bush (which is not a Biblical reference, although the possibility of a double meaning is tantalizing). Kwiatek writes, "Of course the war in Iraq and Afghanistan had some input into what I was doing. My friend James Palmer was writing about both places. Al Amel is the name of a school in Iraq where deaf children studied." Palmer wrote a news article about this school. Kwiatek continues, ''As for the title Burning Bush, I was referring to George W Bush, and of course Red Zone refers to a crucial war zone area in Baghdad."
Returning to his account of the period in which he painted the Seaweed paintings, Kwiatek also mentions his current work, ''As time went on
and the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz group began their surge on Iraq, there were demonstrations in the streets of Manhattan. The antiwar demonstration took place in and around Washington Square Park
I shot color photographs of this demonstration. There was a pro-war
demonstration near Times Square. I shot black and white photographs
of this demonstration. Now that this attack on Paris has happened,
I am moved to continue on with paintings of a dark nature. At the present time I'm working on a moon painting which I will call Isis Moon. It is
60 x 70 inches and it is the darkest moon painting that I've made to date."
In late-November 2015, around the time of the United States' national holiday of Thanksgiving, the artist visited Germany to prepare for this exhibition and to reunite with old friends in Cologne, where he had lived 30 years earlier. One of the festive meals he attended and helped to prepare included a group of twelve recent immigrants (males and females, ranging in age from as young as 12 to somewhere in middle age) from the war in Syria, all of whom were previously unknown to Kwiatek and his friends. The immigrants spoke of their recent difficult migration to Germany to escape the war which is destroying their home. After dinner, one of the Germans showed the group a photograph of Cologne in 1944, after it was destroyed in World War II. The Syrian guests commented that this is what their home looks like now. Kwiatek noted, "It was a very special afternoon ... for once in my life I felt that I along with my friends did something that was right, and meaningful. I walked afterwards through the parks that led me back to where I was staying. Church bells were ringing in the distance. It was magical."
Author's note: all quotations of the artist are from an email exchange
in November 2015.
Matt Wrbican is chief archivist of The Andy Warhol Museum, where he has worked since 1991. He oversees Warhol's personal archives including his Time Capsules, and has curated many exhibitions, such as Warhol by the Book (2015), Twisted Pair: Marcel Duchamp/ Andy Warhol (201 0), and co-curated Warhol and the Stars of the Silver Screen (2015), Warhol Live (2008), and Andy Warhol's Time Capsules (2003). He is the author of The Warhol Evening Telegraph/ Twisted Pair (201 0) and coauthored Reading Andy Warhol (2014), Warhol's Queens (2013), Warhol: Headlines (2011 ), Andy Warhol Enterprises (201 0), Warhol Live (2008), and Andy Warhol:
A Guide to 706 Items ... (2007).
Seaweed photos by Greg Kwiatek
Moonwatchers, 2007 oil on linen, 71 x 102 cm
oil on linen, 163 x 214 cm