What do the legendary post-minimalist Bruce Nauman and Boise's eminence grise of painting and printmaking, Charles Gill, have in common? Both are self-assured, intellectually restless artists, preoccupied with what it means to be an "artist." They are enamored with exploring the endless possibilities and conceptual implications of the routine, producing work that is all over the map.
Nauman recently told an interviewer that, for him, making art was a matter of "watching yourself figure out what to do next." Gill, in his address at the opening of his new show at Stewart Gallery, talked about the importance of "reinvention" in his art-making, while "exhaust the possibilities" has long been his credo in the studio. Both artists are exceptional draftsmen, products of the California art scene. Throughout their careers, Nauman and Gill have remained steadfastly indifferent to labels, defying convenient categorizations to the extent we can never be sure where they will head next.
Gill's current exhibition of 11 recent oil paintings, which opened at Stewart Feb. 26, is his latest detour. While his strikingly inventive figurative subjects and architectural still lifes have perhaps been the most familiar aspect of his output, we have increasingly come to see that they are only one side of his aesthetic. In 2008 at the College of Idaho's Rosenthal Gallery, Gill exhibited conceptual paintings, mixed-media and assemblage works under the title "Head Cheese," an ongoing, long-term project in which he deconstructs and reconstitutes images of interiors and furniture portrayed in a 1950s picture book on interior decoration. His remaking of middle-class vernacular into a progressive art form that blurs the boundaries between abstraction and realism, memory and imagination, marks Gill as a multi-faceted artist drawing from a deep well of source material and precedents.
With this present body of work completed over the last several years, Gill says he is revisiting his roots as an abstract painter in the 1950s. In those years, the heyday of abstract expressionism led Gill to choose the path of Jackson Pollock and company over the more traditional one represented by Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, which still held considerable sway over art students at the time.
Later, Gill would come under the spell of the photorealism of Robert Bechtle and Chuck Close, but in those earlier years he was an avid devotee of the Ab-Ex phenomenon and nonobjective art in general, which clearly still has an allure for him.
True to Gill's plebeian bent, this series of abstract "chip paintings," as he calls them, was inspired by an unlikely though readily available source, i.e., the small, blank index cards on which Gill brushes daubs of paint to test his colors for a work in progress. Gill saves those cards and, over time, has acquired quite a stash of color notations which, in many cases, suggest abstract formal compositions in their own right. Gill's eye for visual patterns and rhythms recognized their potential. Enlarged and re-created on canvas, these paintings come across as fresh, original and strikingly contemporary despite the obvious references to the past.
Gill borrowed Close's technique by making slides of selected cards and projecting them onto the canvas to create full-size paintings.
The result is what Gill describes as "paint chips as still life," which is appropriate given his propensity for turning many subjects, including houses, room interiors, even people into unique variations on the still life theme. Indeed, several of the works like Chips 102 and Chips 103, with their upright, irregularly contoured forms in grays and browns, nudging each other like vessels in a tight space, evoke the modern master of the genre, Giorgio Morandi. For Morandi, too, the paint itself was the primary subject.
These paintings, however, have the vibrant presence of American abstraction 50 years ago. Around the gallery, one is reminded of the palette and styles of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Mark Rothko and Pollock in colorful orchestrations of earth tones, pale or crisp pastels, bright blues and robust reds on fields of soft- or off-whites. Some of Gill's forms in dark hues and black have the look and feel of Robert Motherwell's somber "Spanish Elegies" series of paintings and prints. A few canvases are more subdued than others but, generally, there is a warm, inviting light that seems to emanate from the work.
The piece with the most commanding presence is Chips (kebab) 408, a 5-foot long painting comprised of two adjoined canvas-covered panels. A mural-like work with floating "chips" of color, its center of gravity is the meeting point of the two panels, a vertical fault line around which congregates a stack of abstract forms that anchors the composition. It is a serene, beautifully balanced formal design, almost musical in its gentle rhythms and richly painted.
Typically, Gill keeps us grounded with a few non-art details in the finished paintings. The torn off corner in Chips 207, the inclusion of a card's punched hole, the newsprint peeking through thin paint, all serve to remind us of the humble origin of these handsome works of art. It is a gesture Nauman would understand and appreciate.