Charles Gill is wearing a jeweler's loupe attached to his glasses. He paints standing up with the canvas perched at eye level on a tall easel. He is working on a familiar subject, a small oil rendition of a modest ranch house, the latest addition to a long-running series entitled Drywall Landscapes. His strokes are assured and measured. There is something of the monk in the man as he calmly goes about his business.
"I wear the loupe so I can get a real close look at the licks and smears of colored mud," Gill explains as he turns to refer to a photo that has been blown up from a common real estate ad. "That's really what all paintings are made of. Whether you're talking about Pollack or Velazquez, it's all licks and smears."
Gill has always been a difficult artist to classify. Born in Caldwell in 1933, he spent most of his professional life in California as a teacher. Although he is sometimes linked to the movement of the Bay Area Figurative School, he has investigated a broad range of forms over his almost 60 years as a painter and printmaker. At the moment, he's working on a piece of realism, but leaning against a nearby wall is a diptych that explores powerful and innovative elements of abstract expressionism. Gill pauses on his current painting when interest is shown in the work in progress behind him. It's an appropriate paradigm for his entire and varied career. As an artist, Gill can't resist following his restless urges.
"I call them chip paintings," he says, moving to a nearby table where he keeps his brushes and paint palette. He grabs a plastic deli container once used for coleslaw that now holds an assortment of small index cards. "I use these cards to test the colors. I paint a small dab along the outer edge and then hold them up to the painting as a reference. I never seem to throw any of them out, so I end up with all these little cards with splotches of paint on them."
Gill has taken inspiration from the cards and enlarged them into a series of formal compositions reminiscent of the work of Clyfford Still, one of the most important painters of the first generation of abstract expressionists in the 1940s. Gill is clearly pleased by the reaction to the new work and offers to show more paintings stored in a nearby garage.
He lives with his wife Elaine in a sprawling complex of buildings on a large lot off Warm Springs Avenue on the eastern edge of Boise. Their home, which features separate studios, has the aura of comfortable and settled bohemia. The surrounding gardens are charmingly eccentric and overgrown with a hodge-podge of flowers, tomatoes and long established herbs like rosemary, thyme and lavender.
"I feel like I'm working at the top of my game right now," the 76-year-old Gill says as he begins to display more of the chip paintings. The work is stunning in its use of color and deliberately simple composition. Everything is stripped down to its essence and one is immediately aware of the devastating power of paint alone.
In the mid-50s, Gill studied under the legendary Richard Diebenkorn at the California College of Arts & Crafts. During Gill's subsequent years of teaching at CCAC he rubbed shoulders with colleagues such as Nathan Oliveira, Robert Bechtle and Wayne Thiebaud. Gill has taken things from all of them and made them his own.
"The idea that an artist has to have a personal style is rubbish," Gill says. "When I have a blank canvas in front of me I don't feel like I have to create a painting just like the last one I did. I want to be free to paint unstable paintings."
Back in his studio, Gill ponders a quote by his former mentor Diebenkorn: "I can never accomplish what I want—only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand." After hearing it once, Gill cocks his head as if listening to a bird in the garden and asks for the sentence to be repeated.
"That's a very interesting and complex statement," Gill finally replies. "I think it's absolutely true. You can't think things out too much ahead of time. There will be a lot of accidents that should be dismissed, but you should be ready to embrace the inspiration of an accident. When you paint for a long time, you begin to realize the importance of small steps. It took me quite a while to see that these chip cards might become actual paintings."
A centerpiece of Gill's studio is a press manufactured by the Takach Company that allows him to do all forms of intaglio printing, including etchings, dry points, engravings and mezzotints. He has been an avid printmaker for well over 50 years and copper plates meticulously scratched with an assortment of etching tools are scattered about on various tables. Gill points to a stack of recently completed books of darkly shadowed and moody tract house etchings.
"When I was first putting these books together, I wasn't really thinking about James Castle," Gill says thoughtfully. "But looking at them now, I realize the influence. I love Castle. I think he's had an impact on my work, especially my printmaking." Gill flips through one of the books. Each contains eight dry point prints. Entitled Ranch, they do indeed share the charm of one of Castle's handmade books.
When a print is created with a metal plate it is run through the press and embossed with a plate mark. This subtle indentation is one of the hallmarks of a fine etching. To create the small books, Gill had audaciously cut away the plate marks on three sides, leaving only the one hidden by the binding.
"It's a study in perversity, a way of devaluing my work," he says with a mischievous grin. "You get eight separate etchings for the price of two, but if you break them up you've destroyed the book, which itself is a work of art."
Gill often displays an apparent indifference to the marketplace. Another quote, this one by Gerhard Richter, the German painter who has steadfastly and stubbornly refused to follow any form of traditional stylistic progression, makes his point: "I would do different jobs. I didn't want to have to make a painting I would be paid for, nor did I want to have to be nice to a dealer."
Gill nods in agreement. "I was vaccinated with the notion that you need to have a real job so you can provide for your family," he says. "When I discovered I could teach, I fell back on it. Elaine and I tried moving to New York to paint full-time. I gave myself a year to make an impact. But by the end of that period I couldn't wait to get back into the classroom."
As it turns out, Gill does have a good relationship with his dealer. Stephanie Wilde, co-owner of Stewart Gallery, has been representing Gill for close to a decade. Sitting in her gallery on Jefferson Street in downtown Boise, she reminisces about the first time she visited Gill.
"I was immediately struck by how well thought out his studio was," she says. "I was also impressed that he had his own printing press. As an artist who has done printmaking myself, I understand the complexity of the work. It was clear from the outset that Charles was very knowledgeable and had a real dedication to his work."
But Gill has never garnered anywhere near the prices enjoyed by some of his contemporaries like Thiebaud, Oliveira or Manuel Neri.
"Moving back to Idaho after teaching for over 30 years in California has definitely put him under the radar of most national collectors." Wilde admits. "But his work was very well received when I took it to the Los Angeles Art Fair. I have a passion for Charles' work. There is no denying its quality, and he has the ability to hold his own in a wider market."
Since retiring from teaching in 1998, Gill has found more time to explore new directions in his art. Free from the expectations of academia—or anyone else—he has become a fearless, quiet listener to a very personal inspiration.
"At the moment, the work has an emotional content that is very interior," Wilde explains. "The landscapes are gorgeous, but for my own personal aesthetic I find the figurative dolls and the new chip paintings more intriguing. When you're working in isolation, you answer only to yourself, and that's when the best work happens. No one else can really know what another person should be creating."
Boise Art Museum has had a long standing relationship with Gill. His first solo show in 2004 was a major success and very well attended. Sandy Harthorn, who has been with BAM since 1975 and became curator of art in 1980, feels Gill is one of the most influential artists in the Boise area. In 2004, BAM acquired two major oils by Gill for their permanent collection, Dancing Practice and Jason.
"Charles' work has a quirky content that people really respond to," Harthorn says. "He's wildly popular and is very involved with the art community here. He does workshops for Art at Work, where he is able to share his viewpoints and insights. Because he's a former teacher, Charles is always happy to talk about art and invite you over to his studio."
BAM has a long waiting list of artists from all over the world who are seeking future solo shows and Gill realizes that he may not get another opportunity to showcase his work at the museum during his lifetime. Still, back at his studio, surrounded by works as varied as his restless imagination, he can't help but contemplate the possibility of a retrospective—something to tie together a lifetime of artistic exploration.
"If I have a signature style," Gill concludes, "it's not to be found in the similarities between one painting and the next, but in the differences. I look forward to seeing pieces of apparent diversity and characteristics someday being hung side by side."