The Art and Alchemy of Neil Grayson ’85


Exploring light in the darkness, Neil Grayson creates mesmerizing works that change before your eyes.


For a recent exhibition at New York’s prestigious Eykyn Maclean gallery, Neil Grayson ’85 produced a series of paintings he calls Industrial Melanism. Executed in oil and metal on canvas in a trademark style the artist developed through years of experimentation, the shimmering works explore his longstanding fascination with evolutionary biology and themes of transformation and spontaneous self-reinvention. “Grayson purveys the deep and infinite realm of interconnectedness,” wrote a dazzled ArtNews reviewer.  His paintings “appear to be in continual motion as light glints off their surfaces.” Currently collaborating with Van Cleef & Arpels on an installation for the luxury brand’s flagship Fifth Avenue store, Grayson lives in New York City with his 14-year-old son, Maddox. We asked him to tell us more about his work.

What is Industrial Melanism?

The title of the show refers to an event that took place during the Industrial Revolution, when Europe turned black because of all the coal being burned. There was an insect called the European peppered moth, which came in a white variant and a black one. White moths were much more common, but in the new soot-covered landscape they stood out to predators. Within a human lifetime, they practically disappeared. The birds ate them all. Only the black ones remained. The change in coloration is called industrial melanism. My paintings are based on the idea that major changes, events that take things to a new level, happen spontaneously and unpredictably. Nature produces so many mutations, screw-ups, outliers, all these things that occur and seem to be totally dysfunctional. But every once in a while, a new species is created because the screw-up happens to be suited to survive. For me Industrial Melanism is a way of seeing an outlier like the black peppered moth as a necessity in nature’s experiment with new ways of being. Some oddball kid ends up being the genius who cures cancer, the unforeseeable person who makes the breakthrough that changes everything. That’s what my work is all about.

Like the peppered moth, the paintings in your Industrial Melanism series actually change color before a viewer’s eyes. How did you create that effect?

I use metal as a pigment and work it into the oil paint. All metals have unique color characteristics and reflective qualities. They also have different oxidation rates. Anything below 22 karats oxidizes and changes color. If I use a 12-karat gold, it will over time change to a particular color. I know what the new color will be, because I’ve oxidized them all. Every metal is different. I love palladium. It has a different tone and a different reflective quality than, say, platinum, though at first they might look very, very similar. You really have to know the content of each metal, you have to know the mix. I paint the metals into oil on the surface of the canvas and allow three to six months for oxidation. As I’m working, I’m imagining what the painting will look like in half a year. All the depth and all the three-dimensionality of the paintings comes from the different contents of the metals. Their reflective qualities cause the images to change from light to dark. From one angle, the moths appear as all black and as you walk across the painting, two feet, one foot, they become all white. They just change as you move. It’s all about the light.

When did you become interested in making art?

I’ve been obsessed with drawing since I was 5 years old. Regular kids have typical obsessions: games, sports, cartoons. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Rembrandt. It wasn’t that I was so interested in Renaissance history. I was simply fascinated by his handling of light and dark, chiaroscuro. The light and dark in his paintings seemed so three-dimensional. That’s the aspect I loved.

While still in your teens, you caused a small sensation in the art world by painting a reproduction of Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1660 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum said it was the best copy of an Old Master ever made.

I had read somewhere that the Met offered a special program where you could ask permission to paint from their collection. It’s in their mandate as a museum, one of these archaic things they have to allow, and I thought it would be interesting to try. So I asked and they let me. I was there for about six months on weekdays during museum hours, people standing behind watching as I worked. About a million tourists asking if they could hold my brush and take a picture. It’s not the kind of thing you do if you have stage fright.

How did the exercise help you as an artist?

When you stand in front of a canvas, you’re like a detective at a crime scene. You are seeing the recorded history of what the artist did. You imagine what happened in 1660, and you use all your science and math, all your analytical skills, to try to recreate what Rembrandt must have done. You’re deconstructing the original painting in order to understand how it was made. I wanted to master the techniques, take everything from Rembrandt that I could, and then move forward with contemporary work. When you’re young, your brain is open and you learn things rapidly. From 13 to 18 is your window of opportunity.

Was art a big part of your Williston experience?

I think the only class I flunked at Williston was art. The class I loved most was physics with Ray Brown. That’s where it felt like my mind was operating in high gear. It was like intellectual play. You could feel your brain working at great capacity with ease. I did a portrait of Ray Brown in charcoal, which I gave to him as a gift. But other than that I didn’t really do much art. I was the kind of kid who would flunk art and then get straight A’s in physics.

We often talk in a binary way about art and science. You’re either a humanities person or a numbers one. Is this a false dichotomy?

It’s like saying your left side hates your right side. That’s why I love chiaroscuro, because it represents the polarity. It’s not just light and dark, it’s left and right, representational and abstract. Art and science are not opposed. Art stands on the shoulders of science. Wherever science goes, art has to be that extra thing that taps into the emotional part, the human part. If hard science is on one side and poetry is on the other, then there is a pendulum swinging between them, and I want to swing as far in both directions as possible.

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