The term "painter's painter" is bandied about quite a bit — I use it myself from time to time — and we all know what it means: an artist who may not be appreciated by the public but has earned the respect of other artists, the highest form of flattery in the art world. Paul Gillis is absolutely an artist's artist. I know this because over the years, all of the people who have mentioned his name to me have been artists. When I related this to Simon Zalkind, the curator of an unusual exhibit focusing on Gillis, he agreed, and went even further in proving my point by revealing that most of the people who collect the artist's work and who loaned pieces to the exhibit are artists themselves.
The show, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, is titled Paul Gillis: Curiouser: A Dozen Years of Painting. Gillis has been painting a lot longer than the last twelve years — more like over thirty years — but Zalkind felt he needed to limit his selections in some way. Gillis is tremendously prolific, and there were literally hundreds of pieces for Zalkind to pick from to come up with this striking show.
Gillis was born in 1941 in Buenos Aires, the child of Protestant missionaries. At the age of six, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he grew up. After a hitch in the U. S. Air Force, he attended several colleges before landing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There he studied with artists as diverse as James Johnson, Joe Clower and George Woodman, and the influence of the latter two can still be seen in his work — Clower on the strange forms Gillis employs, and Woodman in the application of paint with hard margins between the colors and with the perfectly blended shades applied in beautiful flat coats.
Paul Gillis at Singer and Werner Drewes at Havu
Through May 28, at Singer Gallery, Mizel Arts and Culture Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360, www.maccjcc.org.Through May 23, at William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, www.williamhavugallery.com. For a slide show of these exhibits, go to westword.com/slideshow.
Gillis often begins a painting by imagining a character in a given situation, and he analogizes this to the process a novelist might go through. He continuously thinks of new characters and rethinks the ones he's already developed. The settings, meanwhile, have their own distinct character, often referring simultaneously to the prehistoric world and to some far-off future. Gillis explains that this is meant to convey the idea that what's happening now has happened in the past and will happen again.
Some of the forms refer to fantastic animals, others to ghosts or spirits. Probably the most striking of these forms are the robotic figures. One that Gillis uses repeatedly is an anthropomorphic machine with the head of a camera (possibly an autobiographical figure, since Gillis works as a photographer). This camera robot is mostly black, something Gillis says was inspired by a painting of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, who was burned to death on a metal grill. Gillis liked the way the dark figure of the burnt body of Saint Lawrence stood out against the painting's ground of flames, and so has employed the similar device of the black camera robot appearing in diverse settings.
To some extent, every artist has an idiosyncratic viewpoint, but Gillis underscores this quality by creating odd, imaginary settings populated by odd, imaginary entities too bizarre to be called figures. Together they create enigmatic pseudo-narratives. Gillis claims he doesn't have a specific meaning in mind when he paints the strange scenes, asking viewers to create this aspect of his work by making up their own stories. I'm not sure I fully believe Gillis about this, however. In fact, I think the paintings are all part of some master plot laying out an epic story about the past and the future. But one thing's for sure: Even if there is a pre-existing narrative, Gillis doesn't want us to know what it is.
The Gillis show at the Singer is a must-see, as far as I'm concerned. And since it's been nearly twenty years since his last major solo, which was at the Denver Art Museum, it may be your only chance to do so for a long, long time.
Another noteworthy solo now on display is Werner Drewes 1899-1985, at the William Havu Gallery. Drewes has been the subject of several shows in this area over the quarter-century since his death, but he had no connection to Denver during his lifetime. His son, Harald Drewes, lives in the Denver suburbs and has made it a major campaign to keep his father's memory alive here. The Havu show is spectacular and includes over forty works hanging on the walls, with scores more in flat files installed in the gallery, making it a major outing by any measure. To accommodate an exhibition this large, gallery owner William Havu and his assistant, Nick Ryan, have created a warren of spaces on the main floor using temporary walls to accommodate the volume of material.
Drewes was born in Germany in 1899 and produced his first artworks in 1919: linocut place cards for an anniversary dinner for his parents. In the 1920s he began to study art seriously, and in 1921 and '22, he enrolled in the famous Bauhaus, then in Weimar, where he worked with several notable teachers, including Paul Klee. For most of the rest of that decade, he traveled extensively, including visits to various parts of the U.S. — notably Taos, then a major regional art center.
In 1927 and '28, back in Germany, Drewes again enrolled at the Bauhaus, at that time located in Dessau. He again worked with Klee, and later with Wassily Kandinsky and Lazlo Maholy-Nagy. In 1930 he moved to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, and eventually wound up in St. Louis, working as an art professor at Washington University, where he taught from 1946 until his retirement in 1965.
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The show at Havu is dominated by later works, but they still have that Bauhaus flavor that Drewes picked up as a young artist. They mostly fall into the category of geometric abstraction, with an expressionist twist. Drewes was best known during his lifetime as a printmaker, with his chosen technique being wood blocks, but he was also a painter, and the show includes a handful of his super-rare compositions in paint.
In an inspired move, Havu has paired the Drewes extravaganza with a tidy little exhibit on the mezzanine titled Sushe Felix; it examines recent work by this well-known local artist. Though there are no overt connections to be made between Drewes and Felix, the two exhibits are nonetheless compatible. At times, Felix's style has been fairly abstract; some of the pieces here fall under that description, while others are pretty recognizable. But all use the landscape as their source. A very interesting aspect of this show is the bringing together of preparatory studies in pencil — which are fanatically detailed — with the finished paintings that are based on them. This glimpse at Felix's method is not only enlightening as to how she works, it's also enchanting.
Another interesting feature of the show is the way some of these paintings show a touch of the signature style of the artist's husband, Tracy Felix. Both transform the landscape into a cartoonish fantasy grounded in an updated cubist-formalism. Though the two have long looked to some of the same historical artists for inspiration, especially the early modernists working in New Mexico and Colorado in the '20s and '30s, they have not typically responded to each other's pieces — at least not until now.
The two shows at Havu — and the singular effort at Singer — are each rewarding in their own ways, and you'll be knocked out by how good they all are.