Behind Greg Boudreau’s Deepwater Horizon

Seattle painter Greg Boudreau specializes in making the ordinary extraordinary. Through his series of spray paint stencils on salvage wood, the 27-year-old artist has recast his own photos of the machinery of blue collar America into landscapes that glow with life, despite being utterly devoid of it. For years, these images have existed comfortably on rafts of wood no larger than a windshield. When Boudreau first saw a photograph of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, though, the Seattle University grad was inspired to turn the extraordinarily dreadful event into an oddly prescient work of art. The result, the large and transfixing Deepwater Horizon, hung in Capitol Hill’s Grey Gallery until the gallery was forced to close shop last Saturday. A few days after Boudreau took the painting down, I spoke with him about the piece, its inspiration and what surprised him about its reception.

Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts.

Have you ever done a piece of this size before? It’s the largest scaled frame. I’ve done a mural before, but that was a different process. But, yeah, it was the largest most difficult piece that I’ve done to date.

When I saw the image, the decisions were made very quickly, and when I saw the original photo of the oil rig on fire, I felt the magnitude of it and knew it needed to be as big as I could make it. And I sized it to that wall for Grey, just, I mean I may have made it larger if it was going on a larger wall, but I wanted that kind of scale to a person.

Where did you get the wood? The wood is predominantly salvaged shipping palette. I know with that size it’d be easier to just make in on plywood but I felt that it would be best to have it on the broken apart palettes. I find wood just on the side of the road; I’ll go around and collect it and rip apart the palette and just take the planks. This one was tough. That’s a lot of wood.

How much did it end up weighing? Well, it was made in pieces. I think its about three seventy-pound pieces. So, manageable; I mean it was literally screwed into the wall at Grey.

You didn’t sell it. So, what happens to Deepwater Horizon now? I might just chop it up and use the wood for other frames. I wanted to make that image, and, you know, what you do with a painting after you paint it is kind of an afterthought.

But don’t you think it’s an important, very current work? Well, the thing that’s been interesting on the oil spill is that, at the time that I sketched that piece the media was just talking about the oil rig going down and exploding; the conversation about the deep water explosion started with “Eleven Oil Rig Workers Die in Explosion.” Then, a couple weeks later the visual image of the event was the live feed video from the actual leak; that’s when it became more about the leak itself. If I want to continue working with this subject and building something larger around [the Deepwater Horizon], I kinda need to work with that change in the perception.

Do you consider yourself a political or environmental artist? I consider myself an artist. And I’m a participant in society. I’m not a non-political person and I’m not a non-environmentally concerned person, but I’d like to think that by not being under one of those specific brands that it might open more people up to the idea of what’s being talked about. I don’t want my work to be quickly chalked up to the idea that, “this is what being-concerned-about-the-environment-art looks like.”

At the shows opening a couple asked me to take a snapshot of them kissing in front of the painting. What do you think people see when they look at this piece? It is just a pleasant abstract composition; but I was really struck by the different ways people saw it at the reception. People I talked to from my generation, they thought it was something on Star Wars, like it’s a fantasy image that is not real, a part of the evil empire that’s going up in flames; whereas the older generation looked at it and they just immediately saw it as an image from World War Two, as a U.S. naval ship going down. •