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.