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The Art of Gary John Gresl

by Gary John Gresl

Each of us may succumb to self delusion, and there from believe that our art is especially important, superior, and worthy of much more praise and exposure than it receives. I may suffer from that delusion, but I also know that I certainly do not have the skills or insights of many other artists. However, no matter at what level my work may be when measured against the work of other artists and of history, I do believe the products by my hand are uniquely and simply my own. I recently heard Georgia O’Keefe state in a video overview of her work and life, and I paraphrase: “The teacher could tell me how to paint a landscape like he painted a landscape. Not like I paint a landscape.”

The artists and art which have preceded me, and those contemporaries which I have seen, may be responsible for giving me direction and aesthetic and philosophical permission to produce what I do. I must acknowledge with appreciation all those who I have seen, studied and/or unconsciously digested. Unless we have lived a very secluded life, all of us have absorbed some influence and knowledge about other artists and their art.

However, for some time now the accumulation of my life experiences resulting in my personally evolved expression fulfills all my needs and goals in art making. Somewhere and sometime the path diverged and I chose a direction... Like so many other children and adults, I had always been a collector and gatherer with interests in Natural History, especially three dimensional objects in the realm of rocks and minerals, fauna, antiques, and pop culture items. Choices inspired by my youth direct my output. Real life experiences and interactions with humans cannot but serve as fuel for artistic fires.

No matter what has come before, no matter what stages I have gone thru, no matter what detours I have taken and mistakes I have made, right now I make objects that I am strongly motivated to make. I believe that these are objects which I have never seen before…objects that are an outgrowth of my personal life experiences, of my intellectual and emotional past. The need to make objects that are not exactly like art made by someone else is clearly a strong reason that I move in any direction. I believe my art making would grow weak and end if I could not find an expression that was uniquely mine. I am not fit to paint beautiful landscapes and portraits and technically proficient awe inspiring paintings. That is not my nature.

I was aware of this personal search for uniqueness in my art making of the 80’s, and some work done then in 2D seemed to me successful in satisfying that quest. However it was soon clear to me that a flat surface could not satisfy my needs. Fully formed three dimensional objects, both the objects that surround me in Nature and human culture, have always been predominant in capturing my attention, fascinating me, and giving me pleasure to handle, organize and study.
From fulfilling experiences recalled as an undergraduate student at UW Steven’s Point, I quickly gravitated into using found objects in my sculptural work. At UWSP for a credit art courses, I had created a few sculptures out of found objects, and I found being engaged with these real 3D things immensely satisfying. I clearly remember the conditions under which I selected the objects, the organizing and engineering, and the appearance of the results.

As a graduate student at UW Madison, in the Department of Related Art of the School of Family Resources and Consumer Sciences (now called Human Ecology), I consciously recognized that my response to 3D objects was extremely strong. Where I could I geared my studies toward three dimensional objects, these studies including a paper written on a collection of African sculpture held by the Elvehjem Museum, and my Master’s thesis about Harvey Littleton and his work in the studio glass blowing movement.The Past in the Present, That Which Has Impressed My Brain
In the 1980’s I created a group of sculptures that were titled the “Gaia” series, which were motivated by recognition of Human degradation and destruction of Earth. This theme still plays into my work and cannot be separated from it. The theme is one important layer in the visuals and underlying thoughts, the palimpsests that are my sculptures and our lives. We build our personalities on the structure that genetics has provided, and by observing and absorbing that which we see and experience.

I also made a series titled “The Ethnography of North America”, which was a title derived from a 19th Century series of books published by the Smithsonian. These were very serious books dealing with Native Americans and native cultures. The sculptures in that series, I observed, were compilations of materials speaking of the history of our culture in the 20th Century, and essentially provided an outlet for my feelings about aspects of our culture

Science, Science Fiction, Pseudo-Science and Fantasy were important parts of my youthful reading and movie going. Images of the unexpected, impossible objects and futuristic stories entertained me, and then Humankind watched Neil Armstrong drop on to our moon. Carl Sagan educated and enriched my life through his books and the Cosmos TV series, while reading the biographies of his life revealed his own limited human condition, his errors and his successes. Today I still pay attention to Science and pseudo-science, and expect faults and mistakes as part of the process of growth.
Books, television and film provided materials to influence thought and goals, serving as some sorts of interlude in the experiences of Reality. There were the movies like Disney’s Fantasia with its imaginative vignettes such as Night on Bald Mountain and the Centaurs and winged horses. Other movies and books became part of us as we viewed them, like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Forbidden Planet, early television Sci Fi serials; Arthur Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End and works by other authors. There were the cartoon images and comic books. I was also part of the last generation to listen to radio serials. I am a product of my culture, but that which I absorbed and experienced has synthesized in me motivating me subconsciously and consciously to draw bits and pieces from diverse sources into a new personal expression.

Sports Afield magazine, pin up girls, the universal experiences related to sex, the repression of a Catholic upbringing in a conservative community, the blast of a shotgun and smell of gun power, the odor of gutted rabbits, catching northern pike and perch on wet and cool mornings walking streams during hot summer afternoons, a small public museum and the public library, visits to cabins, lakes and rivers; the appearance of pan fish in subtly colored water; aunts, uncles and cousins on family farms. Being ordinary and inexperienced while blundering into the frontier of my younger life. Feeling that there was something I should be “saying”, but not knowing what it was. To quote someone else, “I am a dreamer with nothing to say”.

The Human Condition, our frailty and heroism, hypocrisy and ignorance, has engaged my thoughts and set emotions astir. During the decades, restrictions and rules of family, community and religious law were imposed upon me, making me victim as well as observer. There were the years spent as an unhappy teacher, followed by the personal evolution and growth attending graduate studies in Madison. My favorite book of all time is “Spoon River Anthology”, by Edgar Lee Masters. Words from the brief revelations of those dead townsfolk might just as well be spoken today, and I see a correlation of my sculptures as “visual short stories” spoken by persons gone before. Like on the tombstones in “Spoon River”, perhaps these art objects are my several epitaphs. Painting to Sculpture

In the 80’s I first began making paintings that were explorations of geometric and gestural abstraction and non-objectivism. Beyond my former art history classes, I did a personal reading study in those subjects as well. It did not take long for me to become dissatisfied with the limitations of painting. It was, for me, essentially creating false impressions of reality and applying paint merely to explore the process of painting. Making pictures of things, and doing gestural abstraction, proved to be personal dead ends for me.

However, the presence of real 3D objects provided the reality and interest I needed to satisfy my personal expression. 3D materials, by their design, by their evolved aged appearance, by their relationships to each other, could enrich the meaning and depth of my work. They made the process more intriguing and fun, and by their association with one another in sculptures suggested stories and the process of evolution.

Indeed, “evolution”, along with Gaia, is integral to my thinking and sculptures. Each of us evolves in our lifetimes. Some of us stop off at certain plateaus and remain there, while others continue to evolve, finding the processes of change and expansion integral to our lives. Making sculptures in the way I do takes advantage of the process of materials evolving from one state to another, of natural systems as one layer of existence builds upon another, gaining a deeper and deeper material presence, sometime later requiring an unearthing of hidden material. We gather thoughts around the real material objects, and thru their arrangements and associations, create opportunities for idea and increased depth of consideration.

Evolution occurs over an expanse of Time. Life, death, our presence affecting the Earth, our material and intellectual culture evolving. Art evolves, and should do so without the imposition and restrictions of rules. Life is an organization of matter and an expression of energy. Art making is an extension of Life, an organization of matter, an expression of energy. But in addition it is a product of Human thought. Art is idea…conscious and unconscious. Humans are the consciousness of the Earth, but flawed and too often insensitive.

Sculptural forms…objects in the round and with history and character…are the means to an exploration and expression that means the most to me. There is no doubt that I am not fully satisfied in art making unless the resultant art objects are “fresh”, progressing in a direction that produces art which I have not seen before, that continues to evolve…and that stretches my own sensibilities. I feel that sculpture offers more personal opportunity toward that goal than did painting, though a return to painting is not out of the question.The Visual Organization

I recognize that I am motivated to join objects in their visual dance in such a way that a balance and curious interplay takes place. This is usually accomplished without a technical or theoretical mental analysis, rather by a natural intuitive decision making process in which I study the playing field, temporarily place objects, move and remove elements, look ahead to the next step…make some engineering decisions, and then allow for time to pass before locking in the materials. The length of time might be several minutes to several days before I commit to permanently fastening items to the growing sculpture. There are times, as the sculpture progresses, that I must go back to do some remedial work…but usually previously successful elements remain incorporated…sometime buried or hidden as new work is accomplished above. That is the way of life and evolution… These are my palimpsests and middens.

I am aware of the basic abstract sculptural nature of what I use and create. Decisions are made about how far of a reach into space sculptural elements will go. I must consider the logistics and difficulties of moving, hanging and storage. I often “reach” further and allow obvious practical logistical difficulties to remain so that the result before my eyes satisfies my aesthetic palate. This often means that sculptures are created that will be difficult to hang, move, store…and which may have limited opportunities for future exhibition and sale. There are few homes and collectors that will assimilate these objects into their environments. I have decided to make sculptures for reasons other than to sell them…though selling some would make it much easier to continue making more of them. Thought Processes and Resultant Objects

Unfortunately, perhaps…thoughts seem to emerge slowly in me, with an occasional moment of self-assumed brilliant realization thrown in. Since my entry into serious art making in the 80’s, I have gradually reopened myself to respond more intuitively, sort of recapturing that mode from my youth. Whatever my motivations may be, and however delusional or profound my thoughts are, they have guided the art production by my hand.

In viewing art history from its earliest roots in primitive humankind, it is apparent that art exists for several purposes. One is truly to decorate, to visually enrich and enliven the physical settings in which we live, to delight the eye. Another is to instruct, the message from the artist maker or from someone directing the message the artist produces. Some art is made to explore one’s own inner psyche, and in some cases to purge and express underlying unconscious feelings, motivations, thoughts…and/or to satisfy, pacify or gain attention from some gods and/or humans. Art can also be for financial reasons, for monetary income, and it can be made in an attempt for the maker to gain personal recognition, prestige and status.

The “meaning” of art products has sometimes been obvious and sometimes subtle. The reason for Abstract Expressionist painting is quite different from German Expressionism, and so on with other forms. Sculpture in the 20th Century, during what is called the Modernist Period, appears often to be nothing more than ornament…lawn ornament or some form of interior decoration. Look at the painted enameled metal or polished steel objects that adorn housescapes and museums. While they are often visually attractive, alluring and stimulating, there is little if any “meaning” or message carried thru them. They may suggest intellect and status of artist and consumer, but they also may have little more than a mere surface appeal. There are no stories to relate and no life histories to impart. They express an understanding of visual composition, but they are compositions with a thin veneer, below which lies practically nothing more to contemplate. That is not bad…and that is enough for them to exist and to be enjoyed as potentially evocative satisfying sculptures.

However, at this stage of my own evolution I find it unproductive to make sculptures which are merely organizations of materials that “please the eye”. These exist in huge numbers and there will always be more produced. As Marcel Duchamp expressed in a statement about paintings, they are merely “retinal”. While there are artists who can become intellectually engaged in such production, I cannot. Right now, for me, there must be more to it than creating lawn ornaments.

In the 1960’s I became sensitive to the work of primitives and naives, early on discovering the interest that existed in art objects made by persons lacking academic training. Aboriginal art, folk art, the art made by the common people, despite being produced by persons without knowledge of rules concerning figure proportion, color compatibility and other accepted roadmaps laid out by the experienced, sophisticated and academic mavens, still had merit and artful qualities. In fact, we know that folk and Outsider art has been the inspiration for many academically trained and thoughtfully sophisticated artists.

“Outsiders”, artists who by their lifestyles and mental conditions were not considered “normal”, have gained high visibility and respect today. They might live a seemingly normal lifestyle in public, but in their sometimes closely held personal lives produced art objects out of some equally personal and secret drives. Some of these Outsiders were the diagnosed mentally ill who expressed their beliefs and malformed life views thru art forms, styles and content that would be bizarre. It is their uniqueness and stretches out of the ordinary which have captured the attentions of other artists and collectors.

Another emergence in the last century has inspired artists. Objects made by Aboriginals from all continents were once relegated to studies in Natural History and were not included in the same museums that exhibited Western Fine Arts. If the Aboriginal things were not inferior to Western art, they were certainly very different and still remained outside acceptability as fine art objects. Eventually Western collectors, curators, critics and authors absorbed the art by “outside cultures” into the fine art fold.

The acceptance of this described art work into legitimate realms of sophisticated and trained artists, dealers and academia provided stimulus and “permission” to all those of us who would incorporate them, breaching the borders of acceptability and blending the formerly disparate alien cultures and subcultures.Many Roads Diverged in a Wood

While thoughts are many and varied, in my current work there are two visual directions taken. One of these might be called the Rustic series, in which I incorporate objects of the North Woods, of a cabin, hunting-fishing and farming culture. Sculptures in this direction do come out of my own memories and feelings about that more elementary state of my own youth. These sculptures may or may not be flattering to that culture, though I cannot tell if the observer will recognize the several branches of thought in these works. They are meant to involve viewers at many levels.
The other related current visual direction taken is one seen in the titled “By the Sea” series. Because these incorporate sea shells, marine and lake life, they may suggest an expanded craft-like appearance and souvenirs from sea side places. I embrace so called crafts as a branch of art-making, just as I also embrace stage and set design, window design, floral arrangement, landscaping, and calligraphy. I also reach to “earth works” and crop art as true examples of fine art. I absorb Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, Christo’s wrapped islands or Goldsworthy’s stacked stones. I look to human made “crop circles”, deliberately planted crop art producing pictures to be seen from airplanes, and folk made small pictures from seeds glued to boards. Native American sand paintings, aboriginal art of all sorts, popular culture, are all sources for contemporary art making.

While some sculptural pieces of mine do speak distinctly of a straight line lineage, directions do cross and blend, and are seen in what would be hybridization. In fact, one piece produced in 2003 is titled, Hybrid, as it deliberately draws upon the imagery of the rustic and marine sets. Other themes used in the past, such as Gaia, certainly appear in my work.

Related to these themes, sources and places formerly not thought of as fine art related make their way into my thinking about art, its appearance and meanings. For example, natural history museum vignettes, store window arrangements, store displays, stage design, lawn ornaments and yard decorations, “make do” antiques and collectibles (which serve useful functions but are made of available materials and sometimes clever contrivances)…and old objects from natural origins or human hand pull me to them and inspire directions. A Timeline

Not precocious…no genius noted… As a child the interest in art making was clear. It continued into high school and entered into decisions about college choices. My parents had no experience with art and could not encourage me in that direction. In fact, my mother had always urged me, and expected me, to go into teaching. This was an occupation she admired and it was one that she undoubtedly believed her son was destined for.

Any other thoughts I might have had about occupations in Natural History, such as paleontology or geology, never entered into discussions with my parents. As a freshman in high school I did bring up my interests in Natural History with a teacher advisor, but it was met with a smile and dismissed immediately. He had no desire to encourage me to look into some sort of life as a naturalist or paleontologist. Such interests were only to remain as hobbies, and my lack of observable success in science and math was not an encouragement.

Later in Lincoln High, another high school teacher and advisor suggested that I look into Layton School of Art, and perhaps the art department at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. There was absolutely no way that my parents would allow that, and since I was entirely dependant upon them, and was without independent mind and spirit enough to risk going on my own, I chose a college that produced teachers.

The local Manitowoc County Teachers College still existed, and due to its close proximity and low cost, I attended. I recall clearly walking to the school the first day to sign up for classes and thinking about this choice…or non-choice as it was. I had no viable alternative. I simply did what was expected of me. I had little or no experience with children, no drive to teach…and no self motivation to become a great teacher. It was simply what had to be done. Thereafter my interests in art and in Natural History remained a part of my personal culture, but rarely as serious alternatives for a real job.

Yet, the art interest surfaced in the small County Teacher’s College when I became the leader in producing our small college Annual, a simple production with cartoon like imagery. I also was leader in the production of decorations for a couple dance events. Then later, at UW Steven’s Point, I surfaced as someone to also make decorations for another dance event…and I deliberately chose studio and art history classes as a concentration. Besides the Major in Elementary Education, I chose a Music Minor…an interest I had had also since youth. In the sixth to seventh grade I had taken up playing the clarinet and participated in the school band thru my freshman year, but as a sophomore I elected to go into choir as a singer rather than an instrumentalist

Even at UWSP, I was part of the college choir, and also participated in the Men’s Glee Club. While my instrument was the voice, I was not destined to find great favor from my music teachers due to a natural wide vibrato… I also was not skilled in music theory or playing piano, neither subject being much to my interest or abilities. In fact, I had to leave class piano, in which numerous students practiced piano all together and I was quite distressed by the noise. I could not concentrate. When provided an experienced college teacher in order to gain enough expertise and facility, I struggled with piano and learned the bare minimum to receive a passing grade.

However, I spent hours playing tunes of my own creation, in the limited unknown keys that my mind and hands could join together in producing. I would go over certain emerging passages, playing by myself in practice rooms. It must be noted that several students complemented me on these limited excursions into musical creativity, but I never pursued that interest beyond that point. When I graduated and began teaching, the musical interests faded away. I retired my guitar and never again participated in organized musical art forms.

My art and art history classes were a joy, especially amidst the unpleasant subjects which were required in order to fulfill my schedule leading to a BS in Education. I was amazed at the skills and accomplishments of my fellow art students and instructors. Whatever I produced seemed to me to be acceptable by myself and others… I received the small honor of entering two art exhibits and having work accepted in both.

Yet, when I began my five year teaching career, the art making was relegated to occasional forays with a sketch book and clay. My interest in objects grew substantially, and there was great fun and study in the realm of antiques and collectibles. I believed this satisfied some of my longings to produce art. I became engrossed in the study of glass and glass making especially, and eventually that emerged as the subject for my Master’s thesis when I returned to school at UW Madison.
I had even attempted to get into the glass blowing class that the UW Madison Art Department offered, but I had too limited art credits to be considered a candidate for that advanced class. Therefore, when the School of Family Resources and Consumer Sciences (now called Human Ecology), thru its Related Art Department (art related to their curriculum) allowed me to write a thesis about Harvey Littleton and his history in the studio glass movement, I was drawing together my art interests with my interest in 3D objects. The thesis itself was hardly extraordinary, but did provide the necessary outcome leading to a Master’s degree from that School, and it offered some satisfaction on a personal level.

Eventually I began a career in the antiques business, and in my limited environment, a period of considerable study and growth. Handling these objects, learning about the many facets of the antiques subjects and profession, did satisfy me for years. But there continued a sense of disappointment, a lack of development, and a kind of “emptiness” in my soul. I gradually used the term that I was a “closet artist”, always looking out with some longing that was difficult to put a finger on.
Finally, when my art making finally burst its confinements in my late 30’s, I began to experience what I believe was as close to a true calling as possible…that activity that satisfied my soul and entire being to the fullest extent. There were catalysts that finally ground the husk from my artist nature and led to the release of my personal art making exploration and excitements. Eventually…

Of course, hindsight comes easy compared with prediction. The desire to continue in art making comes naturally at this point in my life. The intrigues and downright fun experienced as a result of manipulating materials, leading to some curious and new expression, take me back to my crowded studio again and again. Objects capture my attention. I want to see what emerges.
I have quickly moved into the “”senior” days of my life. The dwindling years seem to me in need of activities that might enrich my existence. There are thoughts of legacy and reputation and achievements. While my own place and record will have limited place in the regional art history, and I will not be present to witness the record, I do hope for some reasons for my name to be viewed. There while have been countless artists and teachers who have thought the same, few of us will have made an impact forming a crater of information.

My involvement with the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, an attempt to raise the visibility of this region’s art history and current art culture, has been a way for me to be productive. The WVALAA would not exist if I had not taken the idea to Tom Lidtke at the West Bend Art Museum…and subsequently stayed energized and involved with it. It can be an important legacy aside from my art making. That activity, plus my activities with Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors and other artist groups, enrich my life and have proven to provide more satisfaction than frustration.
Shaping forms comes naturally now, while before 1983 I could not say that. Consciously I expect to see objects emerge that fascinate me. If that happens, I probably cannot ask for much more. It is the process that provides the final comfort.

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