On a recent video call, from his small, softly-lit north Austin home studio, Greg Piwonka tells me: “I think in high school I even knew I wanted to be a painter.”
The artist, now in his 40s, wears glasses, a high-vis orange beanie, and a few days’ stubble, and when he moves his hands, a couple of tattoos peek out from underneath his flannel shirt sleeves.
“I think I told my football coach, and he was like, ‘A house painter?’ And I was like, ‘No, a painter painter.’ And he was like, ‘Whatever.’”
Delivered in his quirky, disarmingly dry tone, Piwonka’s garbled teenage proclamation is funny and frank like the artist himself. But the story also foregrounds Piwonka’s long-running wrangling with macho masculinity, and its intrusive impositions on his personal and creative life. The heavy, pervasive force of what is now commonly known as ‘toxic masculinity’ is the central theme of Piwonka’s latest oil paintings, and the subject of his new exhibition at Martha’s Contemporary.
Male behavior has loomed large in the artist’s life. Piwonka’s parents divorced when he was 13, and he and his three younger brothers went to live with his father. As the oldest, Piwonka took on most of the cooking and cleaning for the family. The shift brought significant new responsibilities to the teenager, and was an early uproot of the traditional gender roles Piwonka had been steeped in while growing up in Round Rock.
Caught between a stern father and his brothers’ unbridled energy, “the amount of toxic masculinity was sky high,” Piwonka writes in a recent email. “I remember someone visiting our house [at the time] and commenting that it was like the beginning of [the movie Overboard (1987)], before Kurt Russell essentially kidnaps Goldie Hawn.”
The emotional challenges and expectations of that time continue to reverberate for Piwonka, who is now a husband and father of two young boys.
Male artists have often omitted their family lives from their creative practices, but Piwonka’s domestic identity has informed his artwork for years. In graduate school, he created a series of paintings based on collaborative drawings that he made with his oldest son, River. Other works capture quiet scenes of home: a living room, a child’s sweater, a backyard. And lately Piwonka has increasingly used his art practice as a space to reflect on and to defy what his football coach story hints at: toxic masculinity’s role in his own life, and in society at large.
The symbol of this problematic version of maleness — and the unexpected protagonist of several of Piwonka’s recent pictures — is a floppy-eared, droopy-eyed dog. The dog first appeared just before Piwonka’s final thesis project at Virginia Commonwealth University. Weary of graduate school’s endless philosophizing and critiques, Piwonka made what he now describes simply as a “dumb drawing” of a dopey, angry dog.
But once the dog was on paper, it opened itself up to becoming something more. “I was trying to get an emotion into that dog and let it be a stand in for me,” Piwonka says. While painting from this sketch, the artist asked himself what else the dog represented. “And masculinity was the thing: toxic masculinity was the thing that came to mind,” he explains.
“In some ways they are funny paintings and it is funny to compare mens’ toxic behaviors to small dogs,” Piwonka writes in an email. “But I understand [that] being at the other end of mens’ toxic behavior is not funny at all and can be terrifying.” He mentions the January 6th Capitol riots as an example of toxic masculinity that is “goofy looking in its terror.”
With their technicolor spots, neon nails, glowing eyes, and pockmarked tongues, Piwonka’s dogs do seem to embody a sort of toxicity, though the brilliant colors draw our attention more than repel it. The artist’s hyped-up hues come partly from a formative encounter in college at the Blanton Museum with Op Art painter Richard Anuszkiewicz’s Plus Reversed (1960), an immersive canvas of pulsating reds and greens. As in Anuszkiewicz’s work, Piwonka’s colors are so vibrant that, in his words, “they almost hurt to look at.”
Along with their bright colors, Piwonka’s dogs are highly patterned. They bristle over floating fields of multicolored, diamond patchwork designs. These are inspired by the artist’s love of decoration, his mother’s quilts, and a 2006 Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art (now the Contemporary Austin) that Piwonka still remembers clearly. Along with the dog, textiles’ repetitive rhythms and vivid colors also helped to liberate Piwonka from graduate school’s incessant rationalizing.
Shortly after making his first dog piece, Piwonka finally painted a colorful rug from his home that he’d long found interesting. “I wanted to paint it in grad school but [at the time] I felt like I needed a reason to make something,” he explains. The rug painting was a breakthrough because it gave Piwonka permission to paint from intuition, and through uncertainty.
“I like painting even when they’re going bad,” he says.
In fact, Piwonka often begins working from an idea that he might describe as ‘bad.’ But the artist’s ‘bad’ ideas almost always lead to good results, or at least chances for discovery in the process. When painting, Piwonka explains that he’s “willing to take a lot of chances. I might mess something up or even ruin it, but that usually leads me to figure out a new thing, a new solution.
Another way that Piwonka searches for solutions is through his charcoal drawings of houseplants. The observational drawings on paper are “like meditation” for Piwonka, and a welcome contrast to the large-scale, emotionally-freighted imagined scenes in his oil paintings.
“I like to draw plants because they’re so still. It’s a living thing, but it’s not a person,” he says. In his oil paintings, some of these same plants support the main action. But in Piwonka’s introspective charcoal drawings, the plants’ tangles and textures take center stage.
Despite his flashes of wry humor, Piwonka is sincere and direct in his message. Our conversation makes it clear that processing and dismantling the signs and consequences of toxic masculinity isn’t just a painterly focus for Piwonka, but a long term, personal project. He credits his wife Kelly and graduate seminars with awakening his feminist consciousness, and he’s now a dedicated reader of authors like bell hooks, Rebecca Solnit, and Silvia Federici.Greg Piwonka, “Hug,” 2020, 28×36 inches, oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist
Piwonka mentions Night Studio (1988), a memoir about the artist Philip Guston by his daughter, the writer Musa Mayer. Guston is one of Piwonka’s major artistic influences.
“When I first was reading it [some years ago], I was really interested in Philip Guston and his studio,” Piwonka tells me. “Reading it again after becoming a parent, I was more interested in [Mayer], and what her life was like compared to his. (I noticed) “what an asshole [Guston] was to her and his whole family.
It’s a lesson Piwonka keeps in mind as a father, husband and artist. His paintings, after all, are “about my life for sure.”