Artist's Statement: Peggy Gyulai on Painting to Music - in Front of an Audience

Categories: Art, Interview

It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.

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Courtesy of Peggy Gyulai
Peggy Gyulai's "Poissons d'Or," inspired by the music of Debussy.
Applied to the visual arts, the French saying "en plein air" refers to painters who take an easel into "the open air." The park or street is where most people encounter painters who are doing works in public. Which is why Peggy Gyulai's Artist-in-Residency at the de Young Museum is a special chance to encounter "l'intérieur" painting. Gyulai uses music to inspire her canvases. In a free exhibition, Gyulai is painting in the de Young Museum's Kimball education Gallery through Sept. 1, Wednesdays through Sundays, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays 6 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. The best time to see her is Friday, Aug. 23, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., during her special artist's reception, and Saturday, Aug. 24, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., when Gyulai is collaborating with violinist Gloria Justen, a former concertmaster for the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra. Gyulai spoke to SF Weekly about the allure of music for painting, and the allure of painting in front of an audience in a prestigious arts institution, where audiences are mostly (emphasis on "mostly') well-behaved.

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Courtesy of Peggy Gyulai
Peggy Gyulai at work
Q: What music makes for the best painting and why? I notice you don't really paint with disco music.
A: I love disco. I'm a child of the disco era. But there are three different reasons for me to pick a piece of music that I'm going to interpret and paint. The first thing is, I have to love it. Like I really need to think it's a great piece, because I listen to it so many times in the course of creating the work. So I ask myself, "What can I listen to many times?" Then, I try to work in series - which I think is a good practice as an artist, but also allows each painting to relate to the next one that's also being created. So I often choose music that's the same composer or has a similar feeling and world. And last but not least - and it depends on the size of the painting and the project - but I'm either looking for things that for me would be atmosphere and air and a sense of physical space and a sense of expansive aesthetic. Because that's what I like to work with. I look for masterworks, which are the great pieces of music. My experience has been that the great performers, like Arthur Rubenstein playing one of the Debussy preludes at Carnegie Hall, is phenomenal and is this other kind of worldly music - it's just so beautiful and extraordinary. Or it could be a great version of a jazz piece, like Stella by Starlight performed by Herbie Hancock. It has so much more material. There is so much more stuff inside these great masterworks for me to draw from as inspiration and also for structure.

Q: Are the works that you do necessarily abstract or less figurative?
A: They tend to be more abstract. That's very fair to say. However, I let the music dictate if it's appropriate to bring in more obviously landscape-related forms. Debussy's Reflections in the Water is the name of a piece that I've used several times, and the composer is referring to reflections in the water, so it seems to me that's probably part of his original concept for the work. In that case, I invoke a sense of water much more than I might try with another work.

Q: Do you put a time limit on how long you spend on each work?
A: I don't. The fact is that you can work on things forever, and they never quite feel finished, but at some point you have to call them finished. It's an eternal problem for an artist. It's a good problem. At the beginning, when I have a fabulous blank canvas, and nothing has been put on it, nothing has "gone wrong" with it, I work very fast. And I get a whole lot of the painting blocked out in a really short amount of time. Like a large painting that will happen in even an hour and a half. However, I then create all sorts of problems compositionally that I have to go in and refine and refine and refine many times over. So I get slower and slower. So even though the first part might be done very quickly, it can go on for quite a while. Some paintings I'm still working on even four years later. I keep putting a little dot or something here or there.

Q: What's it like, at the de Young, to paint in front of what can be called "a live studio audience"?
A: It's so interesting. It is a bit like being a goldfish in a goldfish bowl, or a creature in the zoo. In fact, when I have a group of people who are attentively watching what I'm doing, I find it actually helps me focus. It wasn't that way when I first started to paint. I was a little worried. I thought, "I'd better make this look good because people are watching." But I got into a groove - I suppose, like a musician. And once I got into my groove, I started enjoying having people watching what I was doing. And their ability to concentrate on what I was doing actually made me value the works more. I wasn't expecting that at all. I've almost never painted in front of audiences the way I'm doing at the de Young. I don't usually do "performance painting." I typically do my own work, which gets exhibited.

Q: What has really surprised you about the de Young stint. Are you like a pro golfer at a tournament where people are quiet and deferential, or do some people, say, speak to you or even yell as you paint?
A: It's funny. There's always a Friday night soiree, which is the big party that's open to the public, and that's when I get a lot of people coming in, and I did have one person come up to me, who walked through the crowd and walked up to me as if no one else was there, and said, "Hooof." (Laughs.) I wouldn't say it was a compliment. And then she asked me if I knew the work of some famous person, who I hadn't heard of, and then she stalked off. That was something I dealt with as gracefully as I could. Otherwise, people are very respectful.


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