By Raymundo Muñoz
“Otherworldly” is perhaps the first word that comes to mind when considering the strange and symbolic work of Paul Gillis, though, there is a familiarity to it all–whether it’s in the imagery or the artistic approach–that grounds the work and makes it all the more fascinating. Composed as tableaux of odd characters and objects upon alien landscapes, the artist’s work draws upon years of refinement of motifs and style that altogether yields a unique vision that says much about the recursive nature of life and history.
In anticipation of his latest show “Otherwhere/Otherwhen” now on display at Rule Gallery through Dec. 6, 1/1 Magazine asked Gillis a few questions about his work, motivations, and history in the art community. Photos are from opening reception Oct. 24.
“I Forgive You My Sins” by Paul Gillis
1/1: What does your creative process consist of? Any rituals/habits/superstitions?
PG: First I come up with a notion. This can be from a preceding painting, someone else’s painting, or from wanting to illustrate some theme. Then I make sketches, then I make a cartoon on tracing paper, copy it onto watercolor paper, make the watercolor(s), then plot the result onto canvas and paint it. Sometimes I omit the last step and do many watercolors. If I don’t have a good new idea I use an old good one.
1/1: What is the biggest challenge you face in making art? How do you work through it?
PG: Sometimes finding enough time has been difficult. For those who need struggle, there are plenty of opportunities. Another hard thing has been winnowing, finding forms that are meaningful to include in the painting. And just trying to master paint is difficult.
“I Alone Am Escaped to Tell My Story” by Paul Gillis. Detail
1/1: What drives you to create? What do you hope to achieve?
PG: As Magritte said, “The world requires you to do something,” you just have to choose. The soldier goes to battle not knowing the outcome; there are long marches, skirmishes, rest & relaxation, major battles. In the end you have a few stories to tell. You hope to have made some things of value, some beautiful things. And at the beginning at least there’s the romantic appeal: as a teenager I saw a photo-story in a magazine about a painter. He had made some good paintings. There was a shot of this painter posed in his studio that had the romantic appeal of a Che Guevara poster. I thought, all I have to do is make paintings and I can be like that. So, you’re recruited, you decide, and you set off.
“Slipping In” by Paul Gillis. Detail
1/1: Drawing from your show’s title “Otherwhere/Otherwhen,” do you identify most with “the Other?”
PG: I think about how the civilizations that have gone before us, and those to come, no matter how exotic, are likely to be familiar to us in the important ways. How we are like the other animals, and how we always have spirit worlds around us, and how a Mom or Dad in Akkad in 2500 BCE had similar concerns to ours, or to those of a Wolf spider with 100 babies on her back. So the Other turns out to be familiar.
“I Alone Am Escaped to Tell My Story” by Paul Gillis
1/1: What is your earliest art-related memory? Who/What gave you the art bug?
PG: We had a nanny who would do coloring books with us kids, age 4 or 5. Our efforts were typical—scrawls of antagonistic color transgressing all the inked lines. Nice job. But her colors were soft and harmonious and inside the lines. So that was my first experience of artistic aspiration. Later I came across the phrase, “The limits of art may not be reached.”
“Little Birdie What Makes You Sing Your Song” by Paul Gillis
1/1: Your work has a strong graphic quality to it, reminiscent of comic books, especially when considering the narrative elements of it. Do you read comic books / draw inspiration from them? Any favorites?
PG: Aside from childhood reading of the usual fare–the funnies, E.C. comics, Mad Magazine—I later read the underground comics of the 60’s and used ink as they did. I admired the early Popeye and Krazy Kat comics also for their narrative skills. Of course the Pop Art diversion was full of cartoon art, and I liked Ukiyo-e. So cartoonery was in the air.
1/1: On a related note, I hear you’re pretty well-read. What are some of your favorite genres/books/authors? How and to what extent do they inspire your work?
PG: Three favorite books are: Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald, Death on the Installment Plan by Celine, Home by Henry Green. I read science fiction, spy fiction and poetry. But aside from incorporating occasional phrases directly into a painting from books, poetry or song, books aren’t a source for me. And, I feel I don’t read enough to be well-read.
“Slipping In” by Paul Gillis
1/1: As a founding member of SPARK Gallery, you helped establish a very important component of the art community: the co-op. How relevant do you feel co-op’s are now? To whom are they most relevant?
PG: I don’t know how relevant co-ops are or were. I know that they’re vital, there are many now, some of them with serious time in grade. Artists want to control the context in which their work takes place, so that’s part of the appeal of co-ops. Maybe they have projects that don’t find a place in other venues. And there’s the fellowship in a common cause.
Paul Gillis with artist Margaret Neumann
1/1: What are the biggest changes to the Denver/Boulder art scene that you’ve seen over the years?
PG: One big change is the size of it, driven by population growth. There were a couple galleries, now there are dozens. More museums too. There are also new technologies, which is the biggest change by some measures.
1/1: Are there any contemporary artists local or otherwise that you follow?
PG: I follow the work of my friends who are artists, and other new artists local or in print/pixel if I become aware of them. When I’m in another city I visit museums. Also as a photographer of art for artists, I see the work and development of my customers.
“Do You Remember Me” by Paul Gillis. Detail
1/1: What is the best advice you can give to young/emerging artists?
PG: I don’t feel I can advise young/emerging artists. Once I entered an emerging artist show, and a reviewer asked, “How long can Gillis emerge?” Still, if you want to do art, it’s helpful to disregard nuances of success or failure. Artists are like street-corner preachers, the lack of a church isn’t going to turn them around.
1/1: What especially fascinates you outside of art? Any secret talents/passions?
PG: I have a dilettante’s interest in languages and ancient history; sometimes I use this material in paintings.
“Beauty Will Save The World” by Paul Gillis