Originally from Scotland, Trevor Guthrie was raised in Canada and graduated cum laude in painting at the Victoria College of Art. He moved to Switzerland in 1997 and made his debut exhibition in Zürich in 2005, with Andy Jllien Fine Art. Guthrie has since exhibited in Arnhem, Basel, Berlin, Chur, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Miami, Munich, Seoul and Vancouver, as well as New York on multiple occasions. Guthrie’s works are included in several international private and corporate collections. He lives with his wife and two children in Zürich.
Welcome, Trevor. When did you first start to think of yourself as a visual artist?
I set a very high bar for what I think an artist is, but maybe it was when I found out that another artist, a really famous artist represented by several international galleries and in major museum collections, was stealing my ideas. So perhaps after 30+ years of practice, I have had a minor amount of influence—just enough to humbly consider myself an artist.
How did you arrive at charcoal as your primary medium?
I actually painted in oil for more than 20 years before shifting to charcoal. This happened in 2003 when asked by a friend to decorate the interior of a Zürich bar where he was throwing a Halloween party. I came up with a series of drawings that weren’t the obvious goblins and ghosts, and were more illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe stories. One of my most well-known works, ‘The Guest Room’, came out of this group of drawings and was key to my first gallery representation. I’ve had the luxury of a significant degree of ‘material recognition’ with charcoal since then.
In looking at your body of work on your website, the subjects and themes are eclectic and seem to be striking in their precise execution. How does an idea make its way to the canvas? Is there a process? And how long does it take to complete a work?
Well, I actually disagree with the description ‘precise execution’. I am not interested in any sort of photorealism. If one views my work in real life, one can observe my choppy handiwork. I refer to my works as ‘symphonies of mistakes’. Nevertheless, my process is fairly elaborate: ideas will appear when I am under the shower in the morning. A few might survive the day and I might make note of those I feel strongly about. These ideas will then be ruminated upon for several weeks or months until they have cleared the next hurdle: Are they justified? Are they good? Do they belong to my oeuvre? If they make it that far, I electronically compose and collage source material. From a print-out, I execute the work by hand. The drawing phase will take anywhere from a few days to three months to complete, depending on the subject matter.
There’s a nuanced, slightly surreal element to many of your works. Where does this come from?
These things come from childhood nightmares, and they come from poetry, from the demons and spirits whispering in your ear, from the memory of birth, from early Renaissance painting, from drunken madness, from music and from the scent of fuchsias.
You came to Switzerland via Scotland, Canada and South Africa. How do you define home these days, and what contributes to your sense of belonging?
I define home as the place where I am free to be myself, where I don’t have to be a public figure, where I am loved by my family and friends. Where I can cook for them and laugh and drink with them and enjoy the ever rarer sense of family and community that is being rapidly eroded by electronic alienation.
Art has tended to play different roles in cultural discussions at different times in history. What do you see as the role and responsibility (if any) of the artist today?
The role and responsibility of the artist today is to have huge student debt at untenable interest rates. This serves the learning institution as well as financial institutions. The artist’s work should be a commodity for speculative markets modelled on an opaque and corrupt system for which there is neither regulation nor oversight. This serves the hedge fund and derivatives manager scouting alternative products (try googling ‘pump and dump’). The artist, should he be so lucky to be hyped by this speculator cabal, must take care that the content of his work be easily absorbed and vaguely resemble past movements recognizable to the speculator/collector. The work should be vacuous, produced in a factory in numbers and flogged at ridiculously overinflated prices. And anything over two years is considered a long career!
How do you view social media?
Social media is absolutely the greatest invention in human history because it has given every single person on earth a platform and a voice.
Social media is absolutely the worst invention in human history because it has given every single person on earth a platform and a voice.
Any tips for young artists?
Make phone calls. Instead of blowing 100K on an MFA program, blow it on a PR firm—your money will be wiser spent there. Embrace commodification and try to forget any romantic notion you have about your ‘process’. The artist’s career has become so professionalised that the bohemian outsider is no longer tolerated. For that reason, if your parents are not super connected and rich, you’d better have a huge ego, a tremendous amount of talent and a very thick skin because what lies ahead of you is a lifetime of obscurity and squalor. Also, Instagram is over-rated.
And, finally, what’s one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
The preface was like the Ten Commandments for an art student. The book resonated for me at the time I shed the last chains of my Christian fundamentalism. Much like the main character, I was also consciously spiralling down into a world of drink and debauchery to kill any remnants of religious guilt I had. I still enjoy Wilde’s ironic wit. It has informed and inspired my own simple scratchings on paper to this day.
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