Steve Gibson is a native San Diegan and has been an active artist for over 40 years. His work has been exhibited in over 90 group, solo and invitational exhibitions both nationally and internationally. He has an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a MA and a BA from California State University San Diego.
His work is in the collections of MCASD, The Art Institute of Chicago, William Patterson University, Oxford Gallery, Oxford England, CSU Long Beach, the City of Los Angeles as well as many private collections.
The following interview accompanies a solo show of Steve’s work on the curatingcontemporary.com website.
BE: Do you remember the first time you made a concerted effort to produce serious work? At what point did you really think about what you were doing?
SG: Now you are stretching my memory Brian. I suppose I was in Junior Collage in 1963 in a painting class. The professor was a mid century type of artist doing abstract landscapes and I tried to emulate his style and technique. I liked the thought of expressing the idea in an off beat manor. The real serious work was done while at SDSU studying printmaking. Initially doing etching and ultimately serigraphs. I enjoyed the historical aspect of printmaking and adapting it to my aesthetic as I developed. I guess it was about that time that I thought I could be an artist.
The thing about prints is that they look like art immediately if you are proficient with the technique. The bad thing about that is that you can skate along doing mediocre work done with magnificent technique. Over time I grew tired of the printmaking process and worked directly with drawing and then painting. My ideas were coming too fast to get involved with the labor intensive process of setting up a print studio and printing. This was around the time I was at SAIC in the graduate program there in the mid 70’s. Curiously, I was short listed and interviewed for the serigraphy position at U.T Austin but managed to talk my self out of the job. I think the guy that got the job is still there.
What about you?
It’s funny. For me, I remember living at home, driving back and forth to school in my late teens/early 20’s. I would come home from school/work and stare at a blank canvas or piece of paper, wanting so badly to wrap my mind around what I saw in Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and Cezanne. Those were the first artists I really studied and tried to emulate. Later came De Kooning and the Ab-Ex painters, etc. Growing up in a small town away from good galleries and museums I spent a lot of time sifting thru books and magazines. I think the first real paintings I turned out were around 22 or 23. There really is no magic to it. Just hard work, perseverance, and focus. Do you agree?
Yes I would agree that success is probably 80% hard work and tenacity the balance is good luck and raw talent. Clarity of thought and working in the now are values that seem to help me get through rough patches. An artist can do that anywhere, small town, large urban area or deep in the woods like Andy Goldsworthy. Sometimes just showing up at the studio and contemplating thoughts can be just as valuable as when you are producing work.
How do you approach painting? What drives your work? Your work reads as organic/representational forms within an abstract space. I’m curious to know. Do you paint from referential material, a sketchbook, or let the work organically unfold.
Good questions Brian. I like to think my work unfolds as a reaction to my environment past and present. Since I am from an older generation and my experiences are many and varied, I have a lot to draw from. When I start a painting I work directly on the surface with simple tools like charcoal, pencil, brushes. I tend to think of myself as an artist steeped in the vernacular rather than the formal attributes of contemporary painting. My decisions are intuitive and deliberate when it comes to what subject matter I reference.
When I do a drawing it is not in preparation for a painting but rather as a specific entity in and of itself. I think the graphic quality in my work stems from my background as a printmaker, which could also account for my predilection for process.
That’s interesting. I’m not sure I have seen your print work before. I can see unintended references to printmaking in much of the work. In the same vein as Johns, Diebenkorn, and Walsh. The flattened pictorial space. The layering of patterns and geometric forms. The colors are pure and vibrant. Your paintings have a calming, spiritual/meditative quality.
I have added a couple of print images from the early 70’s for you to reference Brian. I think your observations are correct regarding the print making influence. I enjoy layers and veiling areas in my painting as well as using direct graphic imagery in compositions. Of course I identify with the afore mentioned artists. Diebenkorn was probably the most emulated painter on the west coast and Johns is a god in the printmaking as well as painting world.
I have never thought about the work as calming or meditative exactly but I guess they might have those qualities. I really think that the printmaking aspect helped me bring a contemplative, intimate or poetic approach to the painting.
You have been painting for over 40 years. How has your work evolved? To me, your work visually bridges the gap from the 20th century to the present. Do you feel a connection with the contemporary art world or more of an affinity with artist of a different generation?
That is an interesting observation Brian. I often think about that my self. I ask myself what art interests me and why. I don’t think it is generational since what I am interested in is similar in all generations of artists going back many centuries. I find that primitive or naïve art can share an aesthetic with contemporary art and that connection is what I find interesting. I guess it is an authenticity and deliberate approach to the subject at hand that I find intriguing. I think my work references the times I lived in and my experiences it those times. I was a fisherman, ocean tug boat sailor, educator, salesman, father, husband so all those things influenced my view of the world as well as my art.
I think as we enter and move thru adulthood our work will naturally change. That doesn’t mean an artist cant tap into their youth or that mindset, only that as we experience life we view things differently. Good work should be an extension of the artist. I can appreciate an artist’s use of color or brushwork. What really sends me is work that comes from the gut. Is it genuine? I think that is why I have always loved Basquiat or Bill Traylor. Like the work or not, that work came from the gut. The same can be said for a lot of the Ab-Ex painters too.
That’s an interesting term to use in today’s art conversations. Gutsy and tough were always terms used in the 60’s and 70”s to describe good work. (Perhaps because the art world was dominated by male artists during that period) The term was applied to any work that was authentic and referred to an artist that was pushing their work into new and uncharted territory. Clyfford Still was tough, Diebenkorn had a gutsy beauty, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nieilson had a wonky gutsyness to their work. But above all they were authentic voices in the art wilderness working with a single mindedness that is to be admired. Today’s conversations revolve around intellectual and philosophical discussions about the nature of art not the intuitive nature of art making. For me, I prefer the latter.
What do you think a contemporary artist’s task is in todays multi cultural, pluralistic world?
We live in an age where artists can easily post their work to a blog, instagram, or Facebook. How has the internet changed how artwork is shown or shared? Can you imagine an artist from the 50’s, such as De Kooning or Pollock, sharing their work using social media? That’s hard to imagine. I can certainly see Warhol, Haring, or Basquiat using the social media to do interest things.
That is the question of the hour. Social media has changed the way the world works not just the art world. Today an artist can get their images out into the world via the internet at the click of a mouse. Good or bad it is here to stay. Myself, I use it as a communication device. I like to share other people’s work that I feel is interesting and connected in some way to the way I work or think. Therefore, Mockingbirdthoughtz blog was formed. I thought it was an interesting way to communicate with people who might be interested. Facebook and Instagram are other venue’s that I use to communicate and share images and ideas on. People today can find an audience for their images and ideas any where on the internet.
I think artists are missing out if they don’t use social media. Like everything else you have to use it responsibly. Unfortunately, I live in an area devoid of galleries and studios. I use Instagram and Facebook as a way to get the work out there. Almost like a studio visit amongst friends, curators, and artists. I feel your feed should be an extension of your studio practice. An insight into your work.
I agree whole heartedly. The internet is a great tool that compresses time and allows an artist to interact with other like or unlike minded folks in the world. Your use of a blog as well as your online gallery www.curatingcontemporary.com is a prime example of someone touching the minds and hearts of many different folks who show an interest in visual art.
I used to have to send slides via the mail or write letters to other artists I liked or wanted to know better. The internet and email have made those technologies obsolete.
Do you think posting other artist’s work to your blog has influenced your own work?
Probably. You can’t post images or articles without some affirmation of them. I usually only post work and ideas that interest me in a positive way. I am not a critic so I don’t criticize. I just don’t post what doesn’t interest me. So, when I find an image or idea that shares an aesthetic with me I am sure it has an influence. To what degree I’m not sure.
Exactly. It is hard to not be influenced by what we see on a daily basis. I find I’m more influenced by what I experience in daily life than what I see online. Real life is much more interesting.
Would not argue with that statement. The touchstones in life are places, people, smells, tastes and real experiences. The internet is a surrogate at best. There is nothing like experiencing life first hand. Good or bad those experiences forge who we are and how we react in the world. I have done and seen a lot in my years and hope to experience more before I check out. I have had near death experiences, sensuous pleasures, horrible pain and more. You can’t get that on the net.
Is there a particular work of art or an artist that made you think about the possibilities in painting or art?
I have had crushes on many artists through the years but I would have to say the ones that touched me the most are the ones that taught me. Mentors are hard to find and when you do you should cherish and revere them. As far as being moved by a work of art, Van Gough’s self portrait brought a tear to my eye when I saw it in Paris at the Musee d’Orsay. All that was Van Gough was summed up in that painting and the emotion overwhelmed me. Great art has great power but all art has the ability to bring about emotional responses from an audience.
What about you? Have you been overwhelmed by Fra Angelico? Been blown away by Picasso at the Picasso museum in Paris. Been sucked into a Rothko? What art or artists take your breath away?
I would have to say sitting on the bench at the Rothko Chapel was a surreal, spiritual experience. Seeing the Piano Lesson by Matisse at the Met and the Dance mural at the Barnes were unbelievable. So many great moments in front of so many great paintings for a variety of reasons. I think color and subject evoke an emotional response the easiest.
Your paintings have a sense of shared history. Although each painting has its own identity, you can tell they were executed with the same thought process. One that is focused on color and space and how they relate within the painting. How do you view both color and space in relation to your work? Or is that even something you think about?
Shared history is a good observation Brian. Each piece I execute does share a history with the previous work as well as my personal history. I look in the rear view mirror as much as look forward when working. Color, space, line, form and intention are all part of the decision making while trying to develop the idea when I start a painting. Color is and always been an important element of my work and my approach is intuitive when approaching it. In other words, what would happen if I did this color with that color with this form? What might this connote? I think about everything when working on a piece, trying different approaches to the same question to see which one works for me.
One final question: From someone that has painted a lot longer than I, how do you approach painting after these many years? Do you see your painting changing in the near future? Do you seek to challenge yourself? What keeps you coming back to the studio?
Well, one thing I have observed is that if you don’t change you become stagnant and stale. Pushing boundaries with my work is essential to my process as I move forward. I try to not become formulaic and ridged as I stumble along the creative path. Forty years and counting since grad school and I am still excited to go to the studio and see what may come next. I try and put my self in front of possibilities and hope I have the courage to accept the challenge each and every day I’m given.
How do you handle the vicissitudes of life in the studio Brian?
I totally agree. I think one must keep pushing forward. To keep challenging ourselves and to see new possibilities in painting.