Boise painter Charles Gill has become an important figure in Idaho contemporary art. At age 75, he is going strong, defying facile categorizations, pursuing his own course, investing the commonplace with a different perspective and vitality. Since retiring in 1998 after 30 years of teaching at what was formerly known as the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif., and coming to Boise to make art full time, Gill has demonstrated in a range of mediums a unique ability to peel back the camouflage of conventionality and expose the unheralded aesthetic and formal components of all too familiar surroundings. Not incidentally, he is an innovative figurative painter and printmaker as well.
It is not surprising to find a pedagogical bent prevalent in Gill's approach to his work, with each painting or print or drawing being as much about the nature of art and the act of seeing as it is about the immediate subject at hand. Even in his later years, he has not been above assigning himself the same challenges he used to extend to his students. You will not find this artist resting on any laurels.
The College of Idaho's Rosenthal Gallery is currently hosting an exhibit of Gill's paintings, drawings and conceptual mixed-media art. Entitled "Inherited Furniture," it includes recent works in addition to long-term projects recognized from earlier incarnations. In fact, one notices that rather than producing a neat sequence of consecutive works, he tends to dwell on and reconsider particular works over a span of years, which is why we see dates like 1980-2003 on the wall labels. "Exhaust the possibilities," he used to tell his students. It is a credo he lives by.
"Inherited Furniture" can be seen as a sequel of sorts to his Boise Art Museum exhibit of 2003. An earlier version of the 16-panel Green Dream painting that exhibited at Boise Art Museum shows here along with an entirely new echoing work entitled Sixteen Still Lifes. Much of the rest of the art here is inspired by, and elaborates on Gill's Head Cheese conceptual project based on his revisions to a 1950s Ladies Home Journal book of interior decoration, which made its public debut at BAM. Consequently, the Rosenthal Gallery exhibit functions as both a mini-retrospective and a "new works" event, highlighting the continuity underlying Gill's past and present endeavors.
It is also a homecoming in a very real sense. Gill was born in Caldwell and spent his early years there. As a child, Gill performed a Brahms violin solo in the same Blatchley Hall space his show hangs in today, back when it was used as a place of worship. And exactly 50 years ago, he taught studio art for two semesters at the College of Idaho.
"Inherited Furniture" is another instance of Gill's particular brand of still life that elevates middle-class vernacular to the level of fine art. Throughout his long career, the subjects to which he has most often gravitated have been secondhand in the sense of being conventional images found in photographs, publications and the advertising media, anonymous possessions he has appropriated or "inherited," and insightfully made his own. In works like his long-running series of ranch-style suburban homes entitled Drywall Landscapes and the motel room interior of Green Dream, Gill blurs the boundaries between landscape and still life, abstraction and realism. His treatment of these plain, inanimate subjects hints at intimate psychological associations that undermine their ordinariness. In this there is something of the literalism that characterized the groundbreaking work of his contemporary Jasper Johns. And there are shades of Robert Rauschenberg in his use of assemblage.
Another artist of Gill's generation with whom he has much in common is Germany's Gerhard Richter. Not only do they share an appreciation for the same type of random source material and for mixing realism and abstraction, but they treat their subjects with a similar deadpan gravity. Then there is Richard Diebenkorn, the California master painter and printmaker who was Gill's teacher and mentor and who opened his eyes to abstract architectural landscape, among other things. His influence echoes throughout Gill's art.
The multiple-panel painting Sixteen Still Lifes with its accompanying charcoal, crayon and pastel drawings (entitled Sum of the Parts and Some of the Parts, respectively) are a centerpiece of the show. Like Green Dream, this newer grouping employs Gill's device of breaking an interior image into uniformly sized rectangular panels, which, when displayed in a proportionally spaced grid, allows each to function as an independent work while maintaining its role as an integral part of the composite image. Sixteen is a departure for him in that the subject is his own living room, something experienced first-hand many times over. How much of a difference this makes is questionable. The panels in each share a palette of corresponding hues, which in Green Dream is predominantly green while in Sixteen it is soft, often dark grays. The panels in both are more interesting as individual works in terms of formal design, rectilinear interplay, and surface detail than the total one-piece image would be. Where Sixteen differs from its predecessor is in its warmth and subtleties of light. There is less of that deadpan distance from the subject.
The exhibit is rich in remarkable paintings. Fault Line is a strong work in oil comprised of two canvases adjoined to form one work. It is a single interior scene that, by a simple offset creates a seismic split within the image. The rich details of the sofa, and the floral arrangement that seems to be spitting sparks are in sharp contrast to the dry, unfinished-looking wall. Of the large scale, Head Cheese-based paintings, Homage to Sol Lewitt is a visually compelling image with a mesmerizing design and Diebenkorn-esque compositional devices. HC Page 229B is a dramatically rendered, dark expressionistic painting of stripped down walls, sparse furniture and an ominously black night splitting threadbare drapery making for one of Gill's most compelling images.
Regarding the smaller works that have spawned from the Head Cheese project, Gill's paintings and assemblages of interiors are the strongest efforts. It is here that he has taken this concept to its best results. The furniture studies/collages of this series are less compelling, with some exceptions, like HC Page 39, which is a dark, monochromatic piece that seems conjured from the spirit world.
Gill has called his art a "celebration of boredom," which is certainly an overstatement—if that were the case, he'd be showing his stuff at the mall. What his work is really about is art unveiling the beauty and intrigue inherent in the simplest of subjects. When it is thoroughly done and insightful, it is never boring, but rather revelatory. Gill understands this, and thanks to him, so do we.
Through Oct. 17, Rosenthal Gallery, College of Idaho, 2112 Cleveland Blvd., Caldwell. The Rosenthal Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call 208-459-5321 or visit collegeofidaho.edu.