While artists have been appropriating spray paint, the quintessential graffiti tool, as a medium of cringe-worthy recalcitrance for many years now, some manage to pull it off with authenticity and sophistication. San Francisco-based artist Casey Gray has emerged as one of those few, and his latest solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary offers up a selection of vibrant and insanely crisp still lifes that conjure intense feelings of nostalgia, hope, and, occasionally, a sense of looming ruin.
The works are precarious arrangements strung together with rainbow-colored shoelaces and carefully curated collections of pop culture artifacts and household bric-a-brac. Gray nods to favorite artists and art world tropes, layering in his hallmark Op art and wavy motifs. Every piece is assembled with a palpable tension, leaving the impression that a small gust of wind would destroy the arrangements.
This quest for equilibrium in his work is constant, Gray explains to Creators, pointing out the overt and subtle yin-yang symbols peppered through the exhibition. "There's a delicate balance, this tension between objects, a tension between opposing forces," Gray says.
If his work, filled with euphemisms, signifiers, and anecdotes, looks nostalgic and highly personal, that's because it is. He began work on show's centerpiece, The Pursuit of Happiness, at the start of 2015, working on it over the next two years with its original title in mind.
"I would add a thing here or there and it sort of just became like a self-portrait in a way, or like a manifestation of the things that make me happy," Gray says. "I'm definitely referencing memory with a lot of the objects… If you think of the whole painting as one person's collection, then it sort of becomes a reflection of their identity."
Gray uses the combination of a torrent of sourced imagery with ideas—like the tabletop ledge as a place for composition—from traditional still life painting as a jumping-off point.
"I would say a lot of what goes into my paintings these days is studio ephemera and stuff from my environment," Gray explains. "It takes on new meaning when you start putting it into the work. Everything for the most part is an idea or the product of crazy Google Image Search tornadoes where I just go down a rabbit hole... And then I obviously reference a lot of traditional subject matter in my work such as fruit and flowers, and things like that that are big cliches in still life painting. I'm sort of subverting it in my own way these days."
"If you wanna get into weird, conceptual tangents, I find it kinda interesting that I'm essentially creating still lifes, or what would be considered realism, out of images that don't really exist," Gray continues. "It's like a realization of a digital space. I've always described it as this conceptual space somewhere between regular, analogue and digital."
He sees this realization as both a commentary and a product of the dual lives we lead on- and offline and the ways in which we process and share information and images. The desire to capture digital space in his work is what brought Gray to the use of spray paint in what he estimates is 99% of his work.
"One of the things that really interests me about spray paint is the flatness, the ability to go on without brushstrokes, sort of the removal of the hand from the work," Gray explains. "As a child of the 90s who grew up painting in digital paint programs from like four years old on, I think it's just kind of inherent to my identity—having an attraction to flatness. And so spray paint seems the most true to my identity in that way."
Although he no longer considers himself a stencil artist, the technique– which he discovered through skateboarding– did serve as an early conduit for his current practice.
"I would stencil griptape on skateboards often, which is a really common thing to do in skateboarding," Gray says. "It was just an aesthetic I was familiar with and I brought that into my work in early 2004. From there the paintings just got really exciting to me.... By 2005 I had dropped the brush altogether and was just solely working with spray paint and stencils."
Gray moved away from paper stencils to masking film in 2010 as he was troubleshooting methods of creating his signature op-art checkerboard motif.
"That sort of changed the whole trajectory of my work from that wild-style, flat graphic to the depth and realism that you see today," Gray says. "My materials changing allowed for so much more growth within the work. Switching to the masking film allowed me to hand-draw everything in my own style so my images weren't looking the same as everybody else's."
The mobile still life, DNT WAY ME DWN, is an optimistic and defiant reaction to events at the end of 2016 and the last piece Gray made that year.
"I made it right after the election," Gray says. "I was just like feeling all this angst like everybody else. It's like fuck how do we process what happened? It was consuming my thoughts so I ended up needing to make this piece that was a rejection of our current administration… and sort of just processing everything that was happening at the end of 2016. It was a really emotional end to the year."
Symbols of unity and defeat dangle together in tenuous balance, enveloped by heavy blackness: The figure of a woman bent forward alludes to Hillary Clinton's failed run for president and Donald Trump's questionable relationship to women's rights, a pot leaf celebrates California's legalization of Marijuana and a Sioux peace pipe marking the temporary halting of construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Also, a face mask and gloves, Gray says, "for the cleanup we're gonna have to do," as a result of America's tumultuous political shift.