The MoCA presents
an interview with
David Eugene Lemley
The MoCA conducts interviews with prominent artists who have gained wide recognition, as well as emerging artists who have shown exceptional potential in their fields. The published interviews help our readers learn about some of the most promising artistic voices of our times.
The MoCA recently sat down with artist David Eugene Lemley to conduct an in-depth interview where the artist gives an extensive portrayal of his works. While the conversational nature of the interview has been preserved, it has been lightly edited for relevance and continuity.
As a designer, I used that success to become an adjunct professor.
David Eugene Lemley
The MoCA > Hello, and welcome to THE MAGAZINE OF CONTEMPORARY ART! Before we start, it would be a great idea for our readers to check out the website to see your artistic production so they’re able to get familiarized with your art.
The MoCA > First, it would be great if you can briefly tell us who you are and what you do.
My name is David Eugene Lemley and I spend my days at the intersection of psychology and craftsmanship. I have been painting since I was 15 years old. By the time I graduated from art school in the mid 1980’s I could draw and paint like my instructors. But, I headed into commercial art because I didn’t want to be a starving artist. However, I promised myself that, after accomplishing my goals of seeing my design work become beloved across the planet, I would retire from design and become the next Picasso. (I am a little behind schedule.)
Remembering The Bones We Pick
I have learned to see myself as much the teacher’s pet, the delinquent child, and the teacher all at the same time.
The MoCA > How about a little more from your background? Have there been life experiences that led you towards becoming a successful artist?
As a designer, I went on to become part of group of reknowned Seattle graphic designers who were adept at taking the discipline and constructs of Swiss (and German) grid-based thinking and upending them with painterly, gestural, and whimsical composition. When digitized, this approach spawned a whole approach to graphic design which was immortalized when I had the good fortune to work with the leadership team at Starbucks Coffee to create the visual and experiential ecosystem they used to build a store-per-day, forever.
As a designer, I used that success to become an adjunct professor. I used my platform then to teach many of the Pacific Northwest’s best designers how to integrate expressionist thinking into the otherwise, rigid grid-based system of graphic design. I helped commoditize the methodology of modern design.
I found myself hungering for something more dangerous, so I began to write… and paint, differently. I painted with intention to unlearn everything I knew about line, form, color, light and shadow, perspective, realism, photography, optimized composition, edge tension, and the principles of graphic design.
For years I considered my work abstract expressionism, until I started hanging out with abstract artists who thought me having words, poetry and scripture woven into my work was antithetical to the very premise of abstract art.
The MoCA > We all know evolution is something that all creative humans endure. How’s that been for you, and have you had any significant influences that had honed your artistic evolution?
From where I sit today, my earlier works, constructed around themes of family dynamics, open hearted-lust for cubism, and sexual tension, feel like I was still showing off anything that would get attention (my skills as a draftsman, typographer, poet). Today, having glued back the pieces of the broken China plates that make up life, I am much clearer that my paintings are part of the imperfect zeitgeist that will speak to people (both present and future generations) about the plain and the painful, the broken and imperfect, the beautiful in spirit (if not in style) whose lives have been hurt by religiosity, legalism, and our systemically unfair society. I paint for the plain, the shamed, the stranger in the family. And for those who feel that they are shut outside the love of God.
My pallet is constantly evolving and I use color as a way to put shape to feelings that otherwise might go on forever as linework.
The MoCA > The application, and even the philosophy of art has constantly changed over time. How have you dealt with those changes?
By keeping a beginner’s mind.
"In the beginner’s mind, the possibilities are many, but in the master’s mind they are few.” – zen master Shunryo Suzuki.
I have learned to see myself as much the teacher’s pet, the delinquent child, and the teacher all at the same time. It helps me avoid the trap of settling for the limited possibilities of the master.
So I take workshops, read above my grade-level, and make ugly things on purpose. And learn from them.
The MoCA > It’s very interesting to see that you’ve had a particular love for the Spanish masters. How has knowing them influenced your current artistic practices?
Spain is everything! I have loved the stories that go with the artists and their work. From Goya’s deeply textured, dark portraits, while going slightly mad painting the queen for the king, to Salvador Dali and his assertion, “take me, I am the drug” – The storytelling of the Spanish masters has captured my attention since I was a boy. And then there was Picasso. Holy shirt balls, I wanted to be him! I needed that striped shirt and longed to be run out of the country because of my work.
Woman With Guitar in Water
I am moved by the collision at the intersection of faith and reason, humanity in all its soupy, messy, everyday-glory.
The MoCA > Your body of works is rightly seen as being based somewhat upon the New York abstract expressionists, particularly, de Kooning. Has this been deliberate or is it unintentional? What’s the approach you’re going for?
It’s an unintended consequence of my journey to unlearn everything about technique. The more freely I paint, the more it draws comparison. Perhaps it is because, like the mid-century masters, I have let go of making things that I can capture with a camera in favor of representing the gesture and the emotion of the subject over the physicality and reality of the subject.
The MoCA > The bright color you’ve used in your works is quite notable. For instance, in “Remembering the Bones we Pick,” the red has been pervasive throughout. What makes you stick to a particular color on your canvas?
Color as a field can represent so much. In the case of Remembering the bones we pick, – a painting about looking at loss through the lens of optimism and choice – the intense red is like the argument, the anger, the picnic blanket upon which to have that feast.
My pallet is constantly evolving and I use color as a way to put shape to feelings that otherwise might go on forever as linework. When I think of color, I fondly remember the first time I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Bluebeard. In the story, the main character is an abstract expressionist painter who describes his use of flat color and lines of tape so beautifully, that it has shaped my thinking.
“The field of green is the forest, the three blue stripes of tape are the deer and that red line... is a hunter.”
Now imaging that kind of graceful thinking smashing together with rock music. That is how I approach color in the moment.
The MoCA > What’s the usual manner in which you create your works? Do you plan everything beforehand?
Planning happens in fits and starts. I rarely set out saying, I am going to make a blue background to represent this particular idea. Instead, I might have a novel I am reading, or news, or meditation, or scripture that I am wrestling with. And I chew on it like a mantra until it ends up, sometimes like a spat-up wad of tobacco, on the canvas.
Being committed to the beginner’s mind really helps here. It helps me continuously push myself to paint without a plan, without a pre-conceived notion of the narrative, the composition, the technique and the outcome. It is a process of building, destroying, overthrowing, occupying. A wax-on, wax-off approach to burial and excavation.
The MoCA > Artists need a constant source of inspiration; so, tell us what inspires you?
Inspired by people, music, family, and the mash-up of plain lives and epic stories. I am moved by the collision at the intersection of faith and reason, humanity in all its soupy, messy, everyday-glory.
Everyday themes are universal and I believe it’s what connects people to my work.
Herod’s WIfe 1
The MoCA > Abstract art has long had a history of being inscrutable in nature to many. What made you choose this particular school of art?
I believe it has chosen me. The more freely I create the less linear the narrative, the more contemporary it feels. I think of it as Contemporary Expressionism. Perhaps my friend, Yuri Shvets, says it best when describing my work, “It’s Abstract Expressionism with the meaning tags still attached.”
The MoCA > It’s no denying the fact that art mirrors life in too many ways than we can list here. Has there been a time when you’ve picked your theme from your commonplace, everyday experience? What can you tell us about this?
My work celebrates the mundane: the garden, a string of lights, a college t-shirt, the cats watching us get ready, feeling too overwhelmed by politics to get out of bed. These are common themes, particularly to the quarantine.
In previous works I might tackle a bigger theme, like, idolatry, but the subjects are never climbing mountains, but instead drinking tea, or fixing their hair, or getting dressed. These everyday themes are universal and I believe it’s what connects people to my work.
Mid Blue Male
When I did eventually get a crack and full-blown authorship, my adolescent sketchbooks and dreams about the artworld took over.
The MoCA > Some of your works, like “Facedown,” seem to fall within a series of works that hold a rich geometry to them. Others, such as “Orange Judas,” seem among those that are more simplistic in nature. What can you tell us about them?
Face Down is from 2015. I was building multiple layers of paint and then extracting the images by scraping part of it away. The geometric feel is a bi-product of the scratching and carving of the encaustic wax. And enhancing imagery to pop out of the shadowy background.
Orange Judas is from 2020 where I have been using a similar technique of scraping but enhancing them with linseed oil washes. Layers after layer of ink and pencil are integrated into the background until the conundrum of Judas as written word shows up in the bones of his nose and cheek. The scrolling over Judas’s head reads, “I only feel you when you make me.”
The MoCA > How has your career coincided with your art, and what are the ways in which they’ve diverged? Did you ever have to compromise between the two?
In the early 1990s, I had a side hustle as an illustrator. Most of the work was heavily art-directed by Madison Avenue agencies (lots of pictures of grapefruit, bell peppers, and gloves), but occasionally something more expressionist would pop up.
When I did eventually get a crack and full-blown authorship, my adolescent sketchbooks and dreams about the artworld took over. I created annual reports with Picasso-esque beach scenes and voicemail, or shoppers strolling through galleries and interfacing with technology.
And then there was Starbucks.
For now, I am blessed to have a rapidly accumulating fanbase around the globe.
Herod’s WIfe 3
The MoCA > What are some of the major exhibitions you’ve had of your artworks?
Not many. After two solo shows in the early 2000s, all of my paintings were stolen. So, even though I’ve continued to paint, I (foolishly) stopped exhibiting until 2020, when my internal clock said, “You know that thing about becoming the next Picasso is still out there.”
The MoCA > Your works are superb in their rendition, and dynamic in their spirit. How have the viewers reacted to them generally?
A gallery owner friend of mine say that my paintings are a throw-back to another era. Generally people are moved by them. Many other people tell me that my work is “cool, brilliant, lovely.”
But even my friends who collect art acknowledge that it takes a certain level of confidence in one’s own taste to hang my artwork in their home.
My wife and family assure me that my artwork is museum bound… after I am dead ;) For now, I am blessed to have a rapidly accumulating fanbase around the globe, who send me notes of encouragement almost daily and share my work via social media.
Mid Blue Male
My studio is filled with oversized canvases in various stages of completion.
The MoCA > Well, it was great to be able to discuss your art with you. We wish you success in what you do! have really appreciated the timeliness of your artistic pursuit. This has been an invigorating discussion, and, we thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Before we end, can you give us an idea about the different projects you’re currently working on?
Thank you so much for the insightful questions.
I am always working on 5-7 different projects simultaneously so that they can thematically bleed into one another (and so I can keep working while the layers have time to dry). Here is what’s currently happening in my studio.
My studio is filled with oversized canvases in various stages of completion including The Goat Herder (which is what I am working on in the photo on the MoCA website). Recently, I have painted to support and am donating the proceed from paintings and limited edition prints to support Black Lives Matter and More Than A Vote. And I recently participated in my first-ever live stream painting event as part of the 50th anniversary to celebrate the life and legacy of Jimi Hendrix. That piece is called Move Over Rover.
Thanks again for the great interview questions.