Greg Hart has exhibited twice on Buy Some Damn Art – we featured both his historical portraits of unknown civil war soldiers and his “modern” portraits of women friends and colleagues. Greg has a very specific, dreamy way with paint. Faces twist and meld under visible layers of paint and features are defined by pools of darkness. Greg is now exhibiting his most recent work so I decided to interview him about his portraits and the inclusion of photography in his latest show.
When you and I first connected you were painting portraits of anonymous civil war soldiers. In this new body of work your subjects are also unknown, based on figures you’ve captured in your street photography. Would you say there’s an allure of painting strangers?
Yes. Art should ask questions and start conversations, rather than explaining or illustrating something specific . The screenplays and movies that I love most – they start late in the story and end early, with limited exposition. That’s what I am going for – it lets the viewer choose their own adventure, rather than relying on a singular explanation of the work.
What do you look for when taking photographs out on the street?
Authenticity. The goal is to show the city the way that I observe it as a local. I remember walking onto King Street for the first time as a kid and it seemed magical – that never completely wore off and I want to share that eccentricity with people who might otherwise just associate Charleston with horse drawn carriages and brightly colored historical buildings.
The intro to your show references “a changing Charleston”. What is happening in Charleston today for those of us not familiar with the area?
Gentrification. But it’s more nuanced than that. The place where I used to have my studio is constantly in danger of being turned into a boutique hotel, for instance. Charleston has a lot of beautiful old buildings that are carefully protected but then you have cheesy shoe chains and pharmacies springing up. And it’s a port city, so you have industry growth, cruise lines, and skyrocketing property values – people who consider this place home are being elbowed out. But there are positive facets to the growth too – world class restaurants, cultural progress, and all kinds of events/festivals. The snake eats its tail.
How important is photography in your process? Do you paint straight from a photo or is there any manipulation or sketching you do before you start?
Photography has been pivotal to my painting from the beginning but that has morphed through the years. It has always been a springboard and a source of inspiration. But this year street photography grabbed me by the throat – snapshots are like a sketchbook for me. I’ve never had the patience for drawing and photography is so immediate and invigorating. I crop and manipulate the photos in Lightroom and Photoshop, then project a high contrast grayscale image onto the painting surface, the pencil outline has the appearance of a contour line drawing, and I use that as a free-form paint-by-number.
How long does it take to complete one of your portraits? Do you finish them quickly or do you sit tight and come back to them?
The painting itself is fairly rapid and happens over the course of a few days but the preparation is lengthy. I started taking this series of photographs in January and shot through October – there were thousands of images that I edited down to about 20. That’s why I named the show Minus Street – it’s a reductive process, with editing every step along the way, until I introduce color while painting.
This show includes a selection of your photographs as well as paintings. Is this the first time you’ve exhibited your photography? So far is your experience of exhibiting photography different than painting?
I studied Film and Television in college and have developed my own film and worked in the darkroom. And I’ve been immersive in my study of street photography lately… but in the end, I’m just an overly excited amateur photographer and it’s all in service of the paintings. Friends ask about prints and I don’t like the way that the layered bright colors of my paintings flatten during printing – so this allows me to share a part of my process without compromising quality – it’s like highly curated selections from my sketchbook.