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On megaliths and painting: Interview with Chuck Gniech

Chuck Gniech is a painter who lives in Chicago. He is a professor of art at the Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago, where he also acts as curator for Gallery 180. Chuck has a blog, Chicago Fine Art, which is well worth looking at. His paintings are currently part of a three-person show at the Highland Park Art Center, which runs until July 22nd. I started by asking him about the work in that exhibition.

'Intuition,' 48" x 36", 2010

Philip: Your paintings currently on show at the Highland Park Art Center are from a series drawing on British megaliths. As an Englishman myself, I can attest to the power of these prehistoric objects. How did you become interested in them?

Chuck: During one of my first trips abroad, I was staying with some friends in London and needed to spend some time alone. I got on a bus headed to the Salisbury Plain to visit Stonehenge and I was hooked. I went back to the States and read everything I could find on the prehistoric circles and megalithic structures—returning to Britain once or twice each year, to explore and experience these mystical places. Through my research, I found that there are more then four hundred and thirty of these prehistoric stone configurations. I’ve explored roughly thirty.

Philip: The paintings explore texture and surface through closely-related tones. What is the relation between source material and improvisation in your painting process?

Chuck: When I first became interested in the prehistoric sites, I was taken with their energy. There is a powerful feeling associated with many of the locations. The paintings from the early nineties focused on that energy. I was creating imagery of dramatic structural forms painted with fluid strokes and usually a single intense light source. As the work evolved, the configurations of the sites, the carvings, and the lichen living on the rock, became the subject matter. Now the imagery focuses on the natural patterns found in the stone. The patterns are fluid and generally soothing. They have the same calming effect as watching the waves on a body of water. I’ve recreated the fluid forms by building up a subtle low relief ground and then applying layer after layer of acrylic pigment. The actual painting process is as soothing as the outcome.
    
Philip: You have also painted the figure quite often. Do you work on abstract and representational paintings together? If so, do you see common elements in these different ways of working?
'Emerging from Darkness' paintings

Chuck: Generally, I work within one theme at a time but there is some overlap. The figurative pieces tend to reference the same meditative characteristics as the surface paintings. They use an alternative visual language to present a similar message to the viewer.

Philip: Do you find that teaching, running Gallery 180, and updating your blog keeps you away from your studio, or do these activities harmonize with your art practice in some ways?

Chuck: My Advisor in Grad School once told me “Artists are hyphenated”. At the time, I’m sure I looked at him rather strangely, so he continued to explain that most artists need to do other things to pay the bills. They need to teach, design, promote, sell, and still make time to paint. I may have taken his comment a little too seriously. I sometimes feel as though I have a number of lives going on at the same time - Painter, Designer, Professor, and Curator. It can be a little intense but I never get bored.

A very wise person once told me that if you’re making a living by doing something that you love to do, you never have to work. I’m very lucky not to have to work.
'Organized Chaos', 2010, 36" x 48"

Philip: What are you working on in your studio at the moment?

Chuck: I’ve been working on the next phase of the Surface paintings with the working title of “Striation”. The Striation pieces are influenced by linier patterns found on some of the megaliths. I first took notice of these marks—some ten years ago—while exploring the sites erected on the Isle of Lewis near Stornoway. Recently, while reviewing some of that documentation, I made a conscious decision to revisit and explore the use of these marks. There is something intriguing about the patterns created by the repetition of line. These meditative patterns are loosely reminiscent of works created by Agnes Martin in the seventies. I’ve also begun exploring concrete as a medium for three-dimensional pieces with the same surface patterns. We’ll see how that goes.

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