Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Oregon #3, The Painter Charles Gill

          How long in life are we creative?  When Philip Roth, 81, and Alice Munro, 79, retired from active writing recently and Doris Lessing died after working effectively until 89, more than a few raised this question, citing Casals, Picasso, Segovia, Auden and others as evidence that creativity continues into our later years.

          To that list add Boise painter Charles Gill, 80.

          On October 26 the Portland Art Museum opened a four month exhibit of Gill’s work, one of four northwest artists honored during the year. It seem clear from this work and his talk at a pre-opening reception that Gill is at the height of his creative power right now.

I’ve been in Gill’s studio near my home frequently, finding him at times working on a near-photographic painting of a ordinary suburban home and at other times on abstractions, whimsical figures or who-knows-what.  I came to Portland for the reception and dinner in his honor, adding Oregon Coast time before and the Portland music scene afterwards for myself.

For this exhibit, the museum’s curator of Northwest Art, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, chose a series called “Chips,” which refers to the little sample chips of color we bring home to try out next to the sofa.  This, she writes, is part of Gill’s fascination with “the subtlety of the mundane—quotidian acts such as shelving towels, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the garage—and likens them to the process of building a painting one stroke, blot and smear after another.”  She compares this series to the work of Abstract Expressionists--at their height when Gill began his career in the l950’s--but calls the series “firmly postmodern.”  She calls his work “unselfconscious and quietly compelling.



Gill tells a great story, in a clear voice, humorously and modestly (“praise and negative criticism are equally distracting”) which I want to reduced to digital memory.   At the reception he told of his mother leaving Caldwell in the l940’s for Tennessee, where he first took up painting at a military academy and then for Berkeley, in search of a better life for her son.  At Berkeley High a teacher urged him to read “Heavenly Discourse” which he called it the most important book he read in his teens. 

“I would not be here today with my paintings if I had not read this book.  I’d be somewhere else.  I’d be someone else.”  In the book all the great figures of history and thought converse in heaven.  Whatever was in that conversation, Gill felt liberated and empowered after reading it.  (The next day he purchased that same edition at Powell’s in Portland.  It was, naturally, less magical the second time around.)

The next turning point was just after his 16th birthday when Life Magazine published a spread on Jackson Pollock with which, Gill said, “Henry Luce wanted to expose as a cultural hoax.  The article had the opposite effect.  I remembered it vividly.” 

In 1950 he bought his first issue of Artnews (found it right between Hot Rod and Titter, conceptually speaking”) and found the other extreme of his inspiration: “Andrew Wyeth Paints a Picture.” 


When given a choice, Gill said, “I went with Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, et al.  (But I kept noticing Edward Hopper and Fairfield Porter in my rear view mirror).”  He finished art school in 1955 as a dedicated abstractionist.  However in between he had studied with Richard Diebenkorn, still the greatest influence on his art, who was associated with both abstract expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the l950’s and 60’s.  “Working figurative surely got my attention but [that] band wagon quickly got over-crowded and I stubbornly resisted climbing on.”

“After two years in the army, completely away from art, I made room for an easel in my mother’s garage and made my first figurative painting.  It was like starting over.”

He described 1961 to 1963 as “The Art Dreams” years.  His dreams included versions of Impressionism, Cubism, German both the Abstract Expressionist expressionism, charcoal rendered as by Seurat and French bank note engraving.  “I took these dreams to be a very good sign that I was close to knowing what I was doing.”

He then told how, one day, he suddenly learned to paint without background music, as had been his habit, and finding that “Painting is music for the eyes….representational painting being music with lyrics and non-representational equaling instrumental music.”

“It is all about pattern recognition…an innate cognitive skill, evolved as an important tool for survival.”  At the top of the food chain, we have great capacity for recognizing, sorting and remembering patterns.  However forgetting is “a terribly important part of the process.  Imagine remembering everything!”


This is the question Gill asked us that night.  And his answer:

“I’m browsing…hunting and gathering…looking for the path through the woods, the edge of the precipice, a way around the corner, over the hill, down the rabbit hole.  I’m seeking patterns that engage my senses and give them traction, and that occasionally surprise me.”

He calls it “recreational cognition.”  It sounds like play, doesn’t it?

He concluded, “Show the same painting to ten people and they’ll see ten different paintings.  We’re all looking for different things.”

          Laing-Malcolmson writes in the exhibit program that “Charles Gill is a dedicated painter; exploring, learning, and teaching over a sixty-year career….His ability to jump seamlessly from abstraction to representational painting and to manipulate paint in a number of different ways…has kept the artist deeply engaged in his practice and has given the viewer this series of truly beautiful paintings to contemplate.”


          So what of this business of growing old in painting?  Gill was interviewed in 2008 by the Idaho writer Cort Conley for a publication accompanying his exhibit at the College of Idaho, “Inherited Furniture.”  The exhibit itself is about passage and memory.  Gill says, is “about all the stuff with which we surround ourselves, lining our nest with comfort, convenience and expedience.  Stuff we’re incessantly urge to buy, collect, arrange that eventually wears out and is thrown away.”

         Conley asks if he is aware of the time that is left “to apply your accumulated experience to your creative future?”  Gill quotes the filmmaker Luis Brunel who said “…age doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese,” and then says:

          It is as it has always been: Paint Today. Tomorrow, it will still be today again.  So paint, again.  It is always now.