Posts Tagged ‘Jim Gislason’

Visiting Jim Gislason

July 25, 2012

At the end of a short gravel drive behind a rancher-style house in South Surrey (B.C, Canada), is this small barn with a small door on the right hand side. Stepping into the dark interior, there is an unfinished room with not much of interest in it. But beyond that, behind a partition going the length of the barn, is the fairly simple studio of Jim Gislason, an artist with enviable credits for his print-making.

The room may be simple, or should I say, austere, but the work going on in it is nothing of the sort.  There is an intellectual theme running through his paintings based on ancient civilizations and myths which I described in an earlier post at the moment of his solo exhibition, “Kings and Queens” at the Elliott Louis Gallery in Vancouver  two years ago.

Gislason is the type of person I enjoy a good conversation with. He’s a fine poet and a talented painter in addition to his work as a print maker. He has a tremendous knowledge of English literature and some obscure ancient literature as well (whence come his titles). He quotes from traditional British poets as well as current song-writers such as Bob Dylan. It’s obvious that he has the ability to internalize what he reads or hears as song, to synthesize it and then to recreate it into iconic visual language. Let me say that in a different way:
Gislason has a capacity to absorb ideas from the world around him, to think profoundly about it, mill it about, and come up with some very original, symbolic art work. What is more, he is very articulate about what he is doing. It’s ingenious.

To express his ideas visually, he has devised a unique and complicated way of working.  He was fascinated with printmaking techniques, especially silk-screening. In earlier times, this process was used mostly for making posters and advertising. In the late ‘Fifties and early ‘Sixties, this process was brought into the art domain under the name of “serigraphy” to distinguish it from its commercial twin.  The process is technically intricate.

A very evenly and tightly woven piece of silk is stretched over a frame. A masking liquid is painted on and then, once it dries, it can be used to make multiple images  of the design by use of a squeegie pulling ink over the screen. Where there is no mask,  ink goes through. Where there is a mask, none goes through. Several same-sized screens can be used to make overlays of color, so the imagery can be quite complicated and colourful. Mask-making methods have evolved over the intervening years. Even in the late ‘Sixties, photo-transfer masks were being used. They were produced first by exposing a photographic film that could be applied to the screen leaving an emulsion that performs the masking function. Colour separation applied to this process allowed for some fairly realistic images to be produced. Gislason uses the photographic process complete with digital manipulations to create imagery on his silks.

Silk screen with photographic masking showing on LH side and ‘inked’ areas on RH side.

In the process of using serigraphy at the beginning of his print-making career, Gislason discovered that he liked what happened when the inks went through the silk and left-over inks stayed on the screen instead of transferring to the paper. Now he doesn’t bother making multiple images. He has discovered, created a new way of working that hangs somewhere between print-making and oil painting.

I’ve often wondered how he could create his works in this manner because his ‘canvases’ are so large.  Now that I’ve seen his studio, I understand his process better. His squeegie is short – maybe just a foot long. In traditional silk screening, the artist would have a squeegie that was just slightly shorter than the rectangular frame’s shortest side. The artist provides ink to the surface and then pulls that puddle of ink from one side to the other of the total rectangle.

Gislason uses oil paints instead of inks to provide more professional, durable and lightfast pigments. He works on a small area at a time, not worrying about doing the whole width at once.  The advantage to Gislason is that, while extrudes them through the screen, he can modulate colours as he is working. That means that his colours are no longer flat, as is characteristic of traditional silk-screen printing. He can also modulate the good side before the paint has hardened with palette knife or other tools adding another texture or glaze. It enriches the colours and permits modification of parts of the overall surface so that the textural quality of the entire piece is as varied and as interesting as the rest of the imagery.

The final product, technically speaking, is beautifully crafted with several different aspects all working together – the modulation of colour, the variety and interest in the tactile surface, and the imagery which is not incidental to the whole. It’s no longer a handmade print on paper, but is the screen itself. There is only one image, not multiples on paper.

“My work is figurative,” he says. “Always figurative.”

I have to think this through, since I see so much abstraction in the works leaning against the walls, pinned to the wall, or stacked in the far end of the barn. The face or the figure is somewhat incidental in the overall. In my mind it’s just another shape, but with recognizable detail. I express my question and he answers, “Without the figure, there is little engagement.” He shows me the one and only non-figurative work in the studio and I easily see what he means. The figures are focal points that call out to be explored, considered.

Mostly the figures are heads only, often a head tipped back on the neck, mysterious, evocative; but there is an image with a donkey and another with a one legged person, wings embracing the the figure from behind the head, which gives the impression that the other leg is there, but in shadow. Or is this one of the Queens, seated on a throne, with a single foot coming forward? For me, the ambiguity is a pleasure because then I need to ponder the work and engage with the figure. There are things to discover.

In explaining his imagery, Gislason theorizes, quotes philosophers and classic writers. He speaks of the difference between logic and myth. Logic is linear thinking, cold and calculating. Myth relates to feelings, poetry, magic. It’s the latter that he wants to have shine through in his work. Yet when I look at his silks, I see that there is an equal balance. The overall image may meet the emotional quotient he is seeking, but the formal qualities of the work – the placement of shapes and objects, the overall design are painstakingly considered.

His eyes light up as he talks. His energy bristles but is sure footed. He is a mystery. It’s these contrasts that he resolves that make his work interesting. Logic and myth. Simplicity and complication.

Work in progress containing map imagery

The new work incorporates images of maps, with small block shapes of them repeated to make large continents on the canvas. He continues with his luscious build-ups of texture, impasto painting which contrast with rich coloured flat areas. When you look from afar, it’s one image; when you are close up, there is so much intriguing detail. The edges are still pinned with clear-headed push-pins. They are part of the imagery, holding in place the soft silk edges which act as a signature framing element. The new works are in progress, not yet finished, up on the wall while he ponders the next step, the next modifications to the first layers of paint and the imagery. Orange and cadmium yellows predominate, but most often with a contrasting turquoise to set up a glowing vibration of colour.

 

Details – Fingerprinted edging with push pin; repeated block of map image bordered by impasto brushwork.

I left the studio feeling very privileged to have been welcomed into the inner sanctum. If you want to see more, check out his web site at jimgislason.com

Many thanks to Ted Lederer of the Elliott Louis Gallery who arranged the visit for me and accompanied me on the journey.

Check out the Elliott Louis Gallery at http://www.elliottlouis.com/

Read about the philosophy of Myth versus Logic in this document:

http://cheer.org.nz/mythoslogos.pdf

Jim Gislason

March 12, 2010

Diva, Jim Gislason, Oil on mesh pinned to canvas

About three months ago, I had dropped in unexpectedly at the Elliott Louis Gallery hoping to see the gallery owner Ted Lederer.  He wasn’t there and his able assistant, saying he might arrive any moment, began to distract me with some of the latest work in the gallery.

It was the first time I had heard of Jim Gislason and ergo, the first I had seen his creations.  She explained his technique whereby he prepares a photomontage of images which he then translates into a photo transfer on emulsive film for silk screening, and then he proceeds to force oil paint through the developed silk-screen. It’s a labour intensive process and it requires a complete fore-knowledge of the final image because, at the point in the process that the oil paint is being pushed through the silk screen material, all has to be done at once.

Since he has differing depths of extruded paint coming through, he needs to know exactly at what place he is pushing through with which colour and a fairly precise amount of paint. That’s all rather technical, so of course I was impressed at the complexity of it. Nevertheless, if the process isn’t in tandem with some meaning, then it’s futile to try to impress someone with the number of layers of paint or the hours it takes to dry.

Detail of paint extrusion. Note the icon of Thor’s hammer from the painting Reveille, J. Gislason

Details of paint extrusion and paint manipulation, glazing etc.

At that time, there were only a few of Gislason’s works and I found them quite engaging. I had to refrain from touching them, they were so tactile, yet every inch of each of the works had something more going on in them. The texture was made up of a lexicon of printers’ symbols mixed with new icons made by Gislason himself. He photographs images he wants to use and then reduces them to a size of the printer’s symbols, mixing up the ready made with his home-digitally-made new symbols, and creates a large mass of them.

From far away, the image looks quite serene – large abstract shapes that glow with colours vibrating against each other, which are filled with details on closer inspection.

So are these paintings or are they silk screen prints?

If they must be classified, I’d put them with the former category. They are, after all, made with oil paints, not silk screen inks. Secondly, there is only one image made each time through the prepared silkscreen, thoroughly dried, touched up with more painting on the surface  and then it is removed from its stretcher bars and the screen with its extruded image and additions of paint  are pinned to its canvas lined exhibition frame.

Framing detail, mesh pinned to canvas

When finally the gallery owner came in that day, I was scrutinizing one of these works and was somewhat reluctant to withdraw from the process of inspecting the details of the imagery. After we had talked, he sent me home with his only copy of a printmaking anthology in which Gislason’s work figures along with an explanation of his ideology. Not only is Gislason an artist but he is a wordsmith as well.  His poems are sometimes part of the imagery and sometimes published beside the work of art.

Last week, the e-mail invitation came announcing Jim Gislason’s latest show and the opening reception and I noted it in my day-book. Not long after, I had a separate e-mail from Ted saying, “If there is only one exhibition you come into town for this year, make it this one. No kidding!”

Fortunately, I had Thursday March 11th available and it was a perfect opportunity to do a bit of gallery hopping with my sister who is in town from Rossland for her first solo show.  I had no hesitation. In fact, I made sure we were there a half an hour early so that we could see the show clearly without others to interfere in either our concentration nor our enjoyment of the imagery.

As guests arrived, Ted came by to say Jim Gislason would be arriving shortly and I just had to meet him. When the two of us met, there was a momentary awkward pause when Ted disappeared.  Jim had no idea who I was and though I had become familiar with his paintings I didn’t know what to expect either.

I explained myself – my admiration for his work  and my desire to write about  artists I appreciated so that good work  could become  more widely known. I talked about the layers of meaning that I was discovering in his paintings. He expressed his concern that people would only focus on the technique and not get the messages built into the work.

Work on paper, Jim Gislason from an earlier series. Note the chevron pattern that occurs here in black and white on the left and in grey and white on the right. This pattern recurs in different colours in many of his paintings.

Although there are a few pieces from earlier series,  the greater part of this Gislason  show is themed, Kings and Queens. In each of the newer images, he represents historical faces of either a king or a queen. The kings and queens, he says, are not mythical people or heads of state, but ourselves, living to the greatest of our potential.

The refusal of Charon, Jim Gislason, Oil on mesh pinned to canvas

He has a strong belief in spirituality gained from wide reading and experience in several religious philosophies, Buddhism being the one that more prominently underpins his work.  I asked about one cross-like symbol, but it was, he explained, Thor’s hammer, or a Mjollnir.  The Longships I and II represent a square-sailed Viking vessel.

Longship II, Jim Gislason, Oil on mesh pinned to canvas

I had to look up the reference to Thor’s hammer later as I was unfamiliar with this – so I am providing this quote from Wikipedia:

  • The Prose Edda gives a summary of Mjöllnir’s special qualities in that, with Mjöllnir, Thor: … would be able to strike as firmly as he wanted, whatever his aim, and the hammer would never fail, and if he threw it at something, it would never miss and never fly so far from his hand that it would not find its way back, and when he wanted, it would be so small that it could be carried inside his tunic.[1]

Besides the spiritual aspect, his references are drawn from various iconography – hand lettering print type, the graphic arts, Egyptian and Greek art, modern day traffic symbols, map making and historical painting references, to name just a few.

Shadow Throne, Jim Gislason Oil on mesh pinned to canvas

For instance, in Shadow Throne, from afar, the figure appears to be dressed in a medieval garment with hoops holding the dress out widely from the body. It is, in fact, derived in shape from Velasquez’s Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain.  Up close, though, the panels of the dress are fashioned from antique half- maps of the globe and other cartographic references,  adding depth and richness to the overall imagery.

Detail from Shadow Throne, Jim Gislason

When I was speaking with Jim Gislason, I realized that it would take along time to delve into all the references he uses.  We discussed this briefly. Though it would enrich my appreciation of his work to know what was embedded in the work, at some point, when the artist lets go of his work, i.e., he shows it to the world, then he must let go all the particulars that he has put into it. Viewers come with their own experiences and knowledge. What may  resonate in their minds may not be at all what the artist intended but that does not diminish the work and may in many instances enhance their appreciation.

Medallion, Jim Gislason, oil on mesh pinned to canvas

Detail from Medallion

This is a show worthy of a good long look. Each time one of Gislason’s pieces is revisited, more is found in it, whether be the connections between the numerous symbols used or an appreciation of the paint texture with its glazes and tactile richness, the added elements collaged in or one of his poems that might clarify the image or conversely add some new mystery to it.

In the end, while I marveled at the technique, the focus on that aspect of them quickly gave way to the intricacy of the imagery and the overall abstraction of them.  My favorite paintings are the ones where I can’t figure out how they were made (even though I’ve been told) and there is a mystery in the content. I’ve added these to my favorite list for sure!

The show is on until April 24th at the Elliott Louis Gallery at 248 East 1st Avenue in Vancouver, B.C.

http://www.elliottlouis.com/