Last fall, when preparators at the Louvre opened crates holding works for a salon-style exhibition curated by Robert Wilson, they were astonished to find two paintings by the New Jersey artist floating magically in their containers, like butterflies in a shadow box. They had been hinged so ingeniously inside the crate that the art handlers whipped out their iPhones to take pictures.
Weatherly brings that same meticulous attention to detail to his art. His still lifes recall Giorgio Morandi in their purity of composition, and Vermeer in their ravishing incandescence. Yet they are about as reductive as representational paintings can get.
He portrays basic things: a fragile cellophane wrapper; a worn plastic widget; a potato, riddled with sprouts, that aged under his patient gaze. Some subjects have more personal meaning. The black walnuts he has painted in pairs and trios are an ode to the black walnut cookies and cakes his mother made in North Carolina, where he grew up. "A rose has been done already—there's nothing I can add to that," Weatherly says about his mundane subject matter. "I want to know what happens with this dumb thing in space. I'm always wondering: Can this be painted? I try to show what I see, with economy. It's an exercise in doing as little as possible."
The complexity of Weatherly's canvases lies with the many layers of transparent glazes—he applies as many as 30 in the thicker spaces—that infuse the surfaces with moody, penumbral tones. Even newer, brighter pieces, such as the 2013 Butter, Lard, and Sidemeat, have an elegant murkiness. "All those layers of oil, the perfectionism, the time he takes—his work is so uncompromising," says Noah Khoshbin, curator at the Watermill Center, the Long Island museum that houses Robert Wilson's collection, including the pair of Weatherly works shown at the Louvre. "Royce is the counter point to the fast-paced, media-centric world where artists are cranking it out by the yard."
For the past two decades, Weatherly has operated outside the art market at a Buddha-like pace, producing only a few pieces per year. Ironic, perhaps, for a kid who was always drawing at the back of the class because, he recalls, "I couldn't sit still." But he never thought he was any good at making art. "For me it was always more about the ideas," he says.
In the 1990s—after earning an MFA at the University of Wisconsin, moving to New York City, and working as a preparator packing artworks and installing shows for the Barbara Gladstone Gallery— Weatherly started painting with purpose, but only after hours. He'd grab a slice of pizza on his way home to an apartment in the Jackson Heights section of Queens and paint at his coffee table into the night. With a full-time job and a long subway commute, he didn't make paintings quickly. But whatever he did finish almost always sold, often to art-world insiders like New York curator Richard Flood and artist Richard Prince.
Weatherly still paints slowly—now in the New Jersey farmhouse that he shares with his interior designer wife, Lori, and their two daughters. He averages about six canvases a year, and he works relatively small; the occasional 16" x 20" painting, for him, is "on the big side." Yet he's under some pressure to step things up: A solo show of his new work opens in May at , the Brooklyn gallery of Peter Hopkins, an artist and dealer who has been friends with Weatherly since their grad school days. Hopkins says he isn't pushing—he has learned how to play the waiting game with an artist who admits to being "too patient," because he recognizes the intrigue, and value, of a painter who makes fewer pieces.
"Royce basically stayed very quiet when everything else was getting noisy," says Hopkins. "But he's become more confident, more plein air. He's no longer in the shadows."