Life can’t always be sweet. In fact, lifetimes are often marked by contrasting highs and lows of bustle and boredom, companionship and solitude, abundance and scarcity. Sure, it’s cliché, but sometimes these lows force us to experience the highs more deeply, more fully—they might even inspire us to eat dessert first.

In artist Casey Gray’s fourth solo exhibition with Hashimoto Contemporary, Sweet Bountiful Life, Gray transforms classical still life subject matter into bountiful potlucks made by friends or extended family. Not one to blindly follow convention, the San Francisco-based artist has been painting timeless art historical images in his signature airbrush techniques for years, giving the paintings a contemporary feel. Before the exhibition opened, Gray caught up with the gallery’s Katherine Hamilton to discuss life in his 40th year, what food he’s been cooking, and the joy created when gathered around a shared meal.

Casey Gray Still Life with a Big Breakfast 2024

Katherine Hamilton: The title of the exhibition is Sweet Bountiful Life, a nod to being grateful for one’s life. How are you balancing the highs and lows of life, and what parts of that balance appear in these newest paintings?
Casey Gray: The title has to do with perspective and acknowledging all of the moments that have put me where I am today, in my personal life and in my career. We had two children during the pandemic. It was and continues to be hard, especially with the cost of childcare and never getting enough studio time, but to make it through all of the highs and lows of navigating that change, I can’t help but feel anything but grateful to the universe. Part of this feeling probably has to do with turning 40 last year as well. It's a natural time to be reflective, I think, entering a new decade.

The search for compositional and spiritual balance is inherent to my practice and is very evident in the new works, especially the table settings. I’m obsessed with creating a certain level of harmony in a painting that pushes the essence of a piece beyond the mundane and into the sublime. Each piece is carefully composed to fit together like a puzzle, and working with my image resources to solve that equation is where I find a lot of meaning in my work. It’s kind of like finding a way to make all the parts of my brain work together. Arriving at a final composition is always an ah-ha moment for me and a great relief in one sense.

What’s sweet about your life right now?
My son finally asked me for a skateboard for his birthday and is thriving at preschool. Watching my daughter grow into herself and learn to talk is the funniest thing ever. I feel like I’m making some of the strongest work of my career and have a clearer vision than before for a path forward. If I forget all the little things that make my day-to-day challenging—the tantrums, traffic, financial stresses, urban squalor—the big picture looks pretty sweet. I’m not sure I’m doing a great job of balancing the highs and lows but I try to carve out time for myself when I can to skateboard and ride my vintage motorcycle.

You’ve spoken before about your need to “fill” things—cabinets or vases in paintings as voids to fill. Have your ideas about filling spaces or leaving things empty changed over the years?
I mean, I’m okay leaving things empty when it feels like the painting wants it that way. These new works are still pretty maximalist but in a way that feels more sophisticated, like calmly maximalist? Haha. The flowers are energetic, of course, but where certain works in the past might have tried to say too many things at once, this show says the same thing over and over through variations.

SF2404A Opening 20

This is your fourth solo exhibition with Hashimoto, the last of which was Wild Animal in 2022. That show focused on the animal kingdom, which was a departure for you at the time. Your show before that, I Can Taste the Sun, had a surrealist / naturalist vibe within the works. Can you talk about what brought you back to food as a subject and traditional still life settings again after so many years?
I should start by saying that I’ve always drawn inspiration from what is happening in my own life. So, with Wild Animal I was a new father, locked in the house trying to stay safe and my world became incredibly small. I spent so much time reading children’s books that I got really inspired by some of the illustration work I was seeing, lots and lots of animals. At the same time I was an artist in residence at The Internet Archive. I was working on another body of work at first but when I discovered all the vintage adventure journal illustrations they had collected something clicked. No one was really eating out at the time so that type of work didn’t feel relevant. Painting animals did.

With I Can Taste the Sun I had just completed a residency at a vineyard in Healdsburg called Chalk Hill where I was immersed in this totally blissful natural environment, painting in a barn surrounded by vines. I spent a lot of time in the sun and it really helped me process my father’s death earlier that year. At the time, I was thinking a lot about grief and nature’s power to heal and that culminated in some pretty surrealist (for me) tableaus and sculptures. I’m really proud of that show, how it was received and how it was collected.

Now, here we are four years after the pandemic started. My family and I are settled in a good rhythm that feels almost “normal” again and I’ve got more clarity than ever as far as the trajectory of my work is concerned. The last four years have been hard but at the same time they've left me invigorated. Dining out more and cooking non-stop for my family has me really interested in food again. Last year we were in Paris, dining out every day, gorging ourselves on patisserie, and a visit to the Louvre got me inspired to revisit some of my older work. Painting food is technical and a little bit nostalgic and I really love it. It’s so fun to make a painting that’s not only beautiful and meaningful but also looks delicious.

There is this print above my Dad’s chair at the dinner table that’s been there my whole life. It says “Life is short. Eat dessert first,” with a little cat eyeballing some cupcakes. It's the dumbest thing but the message is pretty good. I was thinking about that print when I was making this show.

There’s an element of utopia in the works—rather than the display of wealth that the classical still lifes you’re referencing may have depicted, it seems these are depictions of a world of bounty you would like to live in. It’s not “I have all this,” it’s “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could share this.” I also remember you saying that you sort of paint in an optimistic way, not because you are an optimist, but because you would like to be one. Is there an optimism or wish in these works? Or do you see it another way?
Good question. I mean, I identify as an optimist but it's something I constantly work at. I don’t want to make paintings that don't make me feel good and I never have. I’m sitting on a handful of sketches right now that I created during the pandemic that just can’t seem to find their way onto the canvas. The ideas and feelings they unearth are not ones I care to revisit, at least not now. I think a lot of artists felt this way as we crawled out of the lockdown. So you’re right, this new show is dripping with utopian fervor. The paintings all depict food and flowers on the surface, but a deeper read points to the idea that this is a celebratory moment to be shared. Like, we should all be so lucky. The large table settings are about togetherness more than anything. They’re not depicting a balanced meal, but rather a potluck-style array of complimentary dishes, each with their own attitude and significance. They’re about togetherness and shared experience and simple pleasures.

You also have mentioned that you need time to be outside, away from your studio, to gain inspiration by looking at objects and things in the world. Since so many of these works are culinary based, I’m wondering: what meals have you been to or made lately that are inspiring these works?
Yeah, funny how times change. I’m so busy with family now that all I ever do with a free moment is race to the studio. Off the top of my head, Chef Francis Ang’s pastries at Abacá were a treat recently, but everything he does feels like a treat. As silly as it sounds, I still daydream about his banana bread with chocolate ganache. I love dining at Abacá. The dinner menu is incredible, but you’d be mistaken to discount their brunch.

Imagine you have to throw a dinner party tomorrow night, using only the ingredients you have on hand right now. What’s on the menu?
Oh gosh it’s been years. Uhm, from what’s in the fridge right now?! I suppose it would have to be a kale, lentil and olive salad with feta and this fancy homemade dressing I do paired with, like, some hot dogs? I need to go to the store.

You’ve been a Bay Area based artist almost your entire life, and yet I don’t think I’ve seen you paint a clam chowder bread bowl. Are there any Bay Area dishes you have snuck into your works, or would like to make one day?
I haven't snuck too many local dishes into the work. But I think like that almost every time I dine out about something. Sometimes I’m inspired by just the plate itself or a vase on the table or a pattern on the floor. I’ve been meaning to paint the BV’s Irish Coffee for a minute but never get around to it. Maybe everything on the menu at Liholiho could be a painting. Definitely everything on the menu at Californios. Chef Val Cantu and his family are long time supporters of my work and his food is so incredibly creative and beautiful. But honestly, I don’t really work directly from life anyway. I use my own photographs sometimes, definitely in sketches, but I’m more interested in piecing together an idealized vision from disparate sources rather than painting things how they are.

In your opinion, what makes a perfect composition?
Elements of both extreme detail and controlled chaos, big shapes and small shapes, and an underlying geometry that holds everything together. Color relationships are very important to me as well. That’s probably obvious. My Dad would say “Sugar, fat, caffeine and alcohol – everything you need to get through the day.”

What forms and shapes are you really into right now? Anything in particular you’re finding fun or challenging?
Ovals are really fun and challenging actually, like a dinner plate from a 45 degree angle. Fun to cut, hard to draw. I’ve ended up making several templates to work from now. Problem solved. French curves help. I’ve been painting a lot of frosting lately too, which is kind of a pain in the ass but rewarding once it's done.

You primarily use acrylic spray paint, and have noted that they are not typical cans. People might assume you must have come from the graffiti world because you work with aerosol paint, but you actually have a pretty traditional fine arts education background. If you HAD to choose a tag name, what would it be?
Wow, I've thought about this so many times and have never come up with anything good. In the 2010’s I DJ’d under the name Casey Masterpiece for a while, but that wouldn’t work too well as a tag. In college I sprayed a few stencils around town under the name Casemo, which was a nickname from my high school days. The only people who call me that now are old friends. I’ve written CMO a few places over the years but I’m not really interested in being a writer.

The influence of historical painters is quite evident in your work, from the eerie stillness of de Chirico to the busyness of Cornelis Gysbrechts to the illusions of John Frederick Peto. But of course, painting in 2024, your work reacts to themes of the present: desire, life balance, personal and political struggles. Can you say more about creating works that speak to very current themes while also pulling from the history of Western painting, which comes with its own historical baggage?
I have had an affinity for classical or historical painting for as long as I can remember —specifically still life painting. I’m not interested in religious painting or portraiture for the most part although there are a few exceptions. The themes that inspire my work are currently sure, but I would say they are more timeless. I create from a very personal place but I don’t want my work to be that subjective or obscure. As a non-traditional painter, something about drawing inspiration from art history makes things click for me. It grounds what I’m doing and ties it to a lineage—and using spray paint connects that past with the present, hopefully prompting a dialogue about shared human experience.

You’ve spoken about how the objects in your paintings are symbols, allowing the works to take on narratives beyond what first meets the eye. Can you decode a couple of these objects for us? Are there any hidden narratives or non-obvious symbols in this series of works?
Generally speaking, every element in my cabinet and more surrealist compositions has a reason for being there, based sometimes on its inherent cultural significance but usually on my personal relationship to it. I’m not trying to be cryptic. I want my works to be readable in a broad way. So when I want to say something specific, I try to boil it down to the most common or universal symbol I can think of. There are not really hidden narratives in this new work because it really is all food based and not object based.

SF opening

Ok, I have some studio time questions. If you could ONLY have five things with you in the studio, what would they be?
Paint, x-acto knife, frisket, music, water. I don’t need much else.

I think I’ve seen you mention that you often listen to music while you work: funk, soul, disco, house, something with a strong rhythm. What are three albums that always help the creative juices flow?
George Fitzgerald - Fading Love, Luttrell - Into Clouds, Rudimental - Toast to Our Differences

I mostly listen to podcasts now so here are my top 3: Clapcast by Claptone, Defected Radio and Dirtybird Radio. I love the Anjunadeep Edition and on Fridays, I keep BBC Radio 1 on all day. If I really want to feel the flow I’ll listen to one of my own DJ mixes.

If there were one painting in the exhibition that you could make “real” right now, which one would it be, and where would you want to realize the scene? Would you be making/arranging it or would you have it catered?
I’d probably sit down at the Still Life with a Big Breakfast table with a crisp bottle of orange wine, family and friends by my side. I certainly could and have put together epic breakfast spreads like this one but being served would make things sweeter. Let’s get a couple dozen oysters in there too.

Sweet Bountiful Life is on view through April 27th at Hashimoto Contemporary San Francisco. Installation photos were taken by Shaun Roberts and opening night photos were taken by Kuan Ya Wu.