No place like home
Woody Gwyn’s painted landscapes vividly emphasize the special places that surround us and that we routinely forget to notice. Some of his imagery — of receding railroad tracks in Galisteo Junction II or long stretches of highway, as in Road Cut, for example — bring out the idea of journey. Images like Pacific Coast and River Bridge show details only visible from a lofty perspective.
Gwyn is obviously fond of realism, although his focus has varied over the years. In the late 1990s, he was working with subjects from old postcards and photographs, as well as paintings by personal heroes such as Frederic Edwin Church. Two from the latter category are included in a show at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. “I am working in oils now, but those were both egg tempera, trompe l’oeil, fool-the-eye things I did eight or nine years ago,” he said in a recent interview. The subjects were Church’s paintings of Niagara Falls and the Cotopaxi volcano.
No matter the medium, Gwyn’s depictions are the result of an eye trained to pick out the extraordinary in the ordinary and a particular dedication to surface. “I remember,” he said, “Antonio Lopez García was asked if the surface of his work was the most important thing, and he said, ‘It’s not the most important thing. It’s the only thing.’ And I rather agree with him on that.”
Gwyn showed a knack for art as a youngster growing up in Midland, Texas. He was exposed to painters including Milton Resnick and Richard Diebenkorn, who were brought to town by a local art club to give talks and classes. “But the real catalyst for me to become an artist was when I was visiting a relative in San Antonio in 1956 and the McNay Art Museum had just opened,” he said. “One of the first shows was a show of [Mexican painter José Clemente] Orozco, and when I saw that, I wanted to be an artist. There was a huge drawing, a study for his fresco Man of Fire. Then not too long after that, I went to Roswell and saw the museum there and the Peter Hurd collection, and that also excited me with the idea of being an artist.”
When Gwyn was 18, he met Hurd, an artist and Roswell native who suggested he study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Gwyn did so and later studied with Carolyn Wyeth, sister of realist painter Andrew Wyeth and of Henriette Wyeth, who became Hurd’s wife.
The first art show featuring his paintings was in 1965 at Canyon Art Gallery in Canyon, Texas. The most recent entries on his long list of exhibitions are 2010 shows at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art in New York City; the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; and LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe.
Today Gwyn often works on location, traveling in a van that doubles as a studio. “My basic impulse has always been as a landscape painter, and I’ve done plein-air work for all my career,” he said. “I found that just taking photographs is not enough. Sometimes I look at them when they’re developed, and I don’t know why I took them. Working outside directly from the subject keeps me in mind of what I was interested in.” He can also refer to stacks of sketchbooks he has accumulated over the years.
While Gwyn is best known for his scenes of the American West, he spent time outside of Philadelphia and on a farm near Middleburg, Virginia, last spring and is now working on “some Eastern ideas,” as he put it. “I do like to go to other places, but it’s always great coming back to New Mexico. I’ve been in Galisteo 36 years, and I must say there are still lots of ideas. You know, Cézanne said an artist can find all he needs to paint within two miles of where he lives, and I keep finding things to paint just down the road.”
— Paul Weideman