When I walked into The Basement Gallery to view the work of John Killmaster, I came with a predetermined notion of a great, local master. While I had only seen a few of his pieces, I had heard many times from past Boise State University art students about the skill Killmaster possessed as both an artist and teacher.
Two of The Basement's galleries are filled with Killmaster's work; they encompass a variety of media, including acrylic, oil, enamel fired on steel (for which Killmaster is internationally known) and gicleé prints of graphite drawings. The subject matter and styles are just as varied. Nude women painted realistically, nude women painted abstractly, portraits, landscapes and abstract metal wall hangings presented me with a confusing array of work I would not have attributed to the same artist were they not signed with the same confident signature. In searching out the signatures, however, I began to see a pattern of dates that helped to place the work in a context, in a timeline of the artist's artistic growth.
Much of the work was created when Killmaster was a young art student. One particularly graceful piece, painted in 1968 and titled Linda and I at Cranbrook Academy of Art While Detroit Burned, depicts a young, handsome Killmaster standing next to his first wife. This painting encouraged my first thematic connection: The paintings that include Linda are the most powerful. The intimacy and passion described within give credence to my theory that when these paintings were created Killmaster was experimenting with his abilities and searching for the style that would allow him the most credibility as a visual interpreter. I went back to the two paintings of nudes in the foremost part of the gallery. The one on the left, Oxbow Summer School Model, shows a woman reclining on a chair. She wears a hat and appears to be lounging outside on a glaringly hot afternoon.
The painting is mostly abstracted with bright patches of color, little modeling, no shading or attempts at the illusion of depth. The model's face is a blur, just a green squiggle wiped through what looks like a flesh tone. Compared to the painting on the right, Linda Nude, it seems too controlled. The patches of color are arranged so carefully and the composition so contrived that it appears, in comparison, to be a paint-by-number. Linda Nude, although painted in the same year and with a similar composition and subject matter, describes a passion and energy that can only be harnessed by the young lover. The colors, while still arranged in rough patches, are darker and more emotionally weighty. While both are studies of a nude woman in a reclining position, Linda seems to be caught in mid-writhe, pre- or post-coital, instead of just lounging decadently about in the buff. Killmaster's accompanying color patches seem to writhe with her. They are rough and uncontrolled, hurriedly and intently painted.
There are many pieces that do not seem to be related and it was only after walking through the entire exhibition, and discovering a brief artist statement, that I understood the thematic connection. "In 1965 I went to Mexico to study art, painting, printmaking and basic Spanish. While in the city of Guanajuato, I immersed myself in the culture as best I could. With camera and paint, I explored the city and surrounding countryside. Some of these paintings were done at the time and others weren't completed until 39 years later. The time spent in Mexico, the country, culture and people helped stimulate me artistically. I came away with a new visually enriched aesthetic perspective which has greatly influenced my work even today."
I suddenly grasped the scope and vision of the disparate works in the gallery. I could see the influence of time spent in Mexico in the varying color palettes: Many of the paintings that include people or cityscapes are bright and almost garishly colored, while the landscapes are earthy. I could also finally make sense of the sculptured and enameled panels of steel. What I had previously thought were pieces best displayed over a mantle in a wood-paneled and shag-carpeted 1970s living room became homages to the repoussé metal technique used in Mexico for pieces like the silver and copper masks popular in Guerrero.
There is a lot of talk about the validity and usefulness of artist statements and this exhibition made me a true believer in them. One brief paragraph turned the exhibition from an incongruous, confusing selection of artwork that did not seem to represent the skill I had heard Killmaster possessed into a thoughtful and sentimental reminiscence of a time filled with youthful experimentation and a passion for capturing experiences in a visual log that reads like a vibrant young man's diary.
John Killmaster at The Basement Gallery through the third week in August. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., or by appointment.