Invitation to the Dance: the Art of Denis Gaston

Denis Gaston, Death of Vitruvian Man, mixed media on paper (used by permission  of the artist)

Denis Gaston, Death of Vitruvian Man, mixed media on paper (used by permission of the artist)

The first things one notices when encountering Denis Gaston’s paintings and drawings are how varied the representations of the human face and figure are, how varied the techniques are to produce them, and how easy his work is to appreciate. One of the foundations of his work is an astonishing sense of graphic possibilities: Gaston draws like nobody’s business. In painting, he works against his prodigious facility of line by taking on difficult media and avoiding brushes. The result is an amazing array of techniques reminiscent of Picasso, Klee or Clemente. Just look at his 2012 painting Winter, Approaching Storm, which he wrested into being by mixing oil, water, wax and wood, with a sprinkling of sawdust. The result of his approach is freshness. Each work is a happening.

Gaston wears his learning equally lightly. The multitude of faces one sees in his work suggest a wide variety of allusions, from ancient arts all over the world to cartoons and contemporary graphic signs. In fact, the balancing acts that Gaston seems to perform effortlessly (and repeatedly) might suggest the false impression that his work is easy and light. Yet one of the greatest pleasures of his work is that it is both appealing to the eye and redolent of mind, for those who care to look further. One need not think first in an effort to appreciate the work, while subsequent meditation provides ongoing nourishment to one’s interest—that is the great beauty of it—as it is, I would argue, of all great art.

A case in point is his Death of Vitruvian Man, no less iconic than Leonardo da Vinci’s, and as ostensibly easy to grasp in a single glance. The man, it would seem, has become a silhouette for shooting practice, and one’s first impulse might be to smile, as at a visual pun. But perhaps something deeper is going on here. Just who, or what, is being killed? Notice the present tense, in keeping with Gaston’s approach. We see a process. If Leonardo’s image represents an ideal, then the least that can be said of Gaston’s is that it shoots holes in the notion of idealization. The death that Gaston dramatizes is that of idealized views via humanity’s images of itself. We must create ourselves, continually. In Death of Vitruvian Man Gaston shows us a shadow as if draped on a hanger, the human element reduced to a chip on the figure’s bony shoulder, the cosmic circle functioning merely to designate the field of fire, the bullet holes ironic echoes in universal blood red. The figure itself mockingly refuses to be situated in either square or circle. Ghostly profiles on either side of the figure might suggest the real man behind the shadow—or rather men, for don’t we know now that “man” is plural?—that “man”, even within a single ethnic group, cannot be reduced to a single set of ideal proportions? Gaston is not interested in anything so banal as an answer. His work opens up questions. And when we are tired of them we can go back to smiling at the pun. A delicious meal is so much better than a meal that nourishes merely.

Deeper questions never cease to offer themselves behind the beautiful facades of Gaston’s drawings and paintings. Like great music that both enchants and offers manna for meditation (think of Bach), one can either simply enjoy Gaston’s work, or muse on its questions, depending on mood. And what could be better, more beautiful, more lasting than an art that can so successfully negotiate this balance and in the process invite viewers to the dance?


Denis Gaston’s drawings and paintings are on view at the
Morean Arts Center until June 30th, 2013.

Read my interview with Denis.

 

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9 Responses to Invitation to the Dance: the Art of Denis Gaston

  1. hedgewitch says:

    Although I am pretty much limited to representational art, with perhaps a sneaking fondness for the Surrealists, this work is exceptional and striking. Thanks for the exposure Mark.

  2. Wonderfully written, and an interesting comparison with Bach! I follow you on Facebook and have shared this post on my page.

  3. Susan Scheid says:

    Death of Vitruvian Man is an immediately visually arresting work. Your commentary takes me much deeper into it than I would be able to accomplish on my own. I was particularly struck by this: “If Leonardo’s image represents an ideal, then the least that can be said of Gaston’s is that it shoots holes in the notion of idealization. The death that Gaston dramatizes is that of idealized views via humanity’s images of itself. We must create ourselves, continually.” Many thanks for this introduction to Gaston’s work.

    • I’m glad you picked that out. Gaston’s work speaks this message to me very clearly. In writing this I was reminded of the Judith Butler material from ‘Undoing Gender’ that I just read. If I wanted to go into a deeper essay I would have explored that….

  4. angela says:

    What I found interesting was Gaston’s statement on how the brush controls his work too much – a profound discovery for an artist, and almost freeing as he works in ‘non-traditional’ ways.

    I’m not sure why, but the eyes in his work are very compelling – even when they are merely an outline…there is an amazing energy and draw for me. I do not think there is an eye per se in Death, yet I find one peeking out at me… so odd what we are drawn to in pieces.

    (really hope you explore your thinking on Butler and art’s exploration…)

    • Yeah, I totally relate to his “control issues” comment. I’ve had to deal with them in my own way, not always successfully. But there’s no doubt that Denis has found a resoundingly successful way (ways) around them.

  5. John S. says:

    I own two Gaston paintings, “Hippo Occulus” painted in 2001 being my favorite. The face is a cross between being human and of course that of a hippo. I also have two of his drawings. All his works are prominently displayed in my home and they are certainly conversation pieces! I absolutely love them!

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