Interpreting time and place
Derek Gillingham at the opening of New Work from the Road. (photo from Derek Gillingham)
Derek Gillingham’s solo show New Work from the Road at the Zack Gallery looks like a travelogue, where the artist’s moments and memories have been captured by a paint brush. The show consists of his abstract paintings of the last few years. “Abstract painting is much more challenging than figurative,” Gillingham said recently in an interview with the Independent. “Such a painting is its own world. I can’t refer to an object, an image when I paint. But shapes and colors fascinate me.”
He explained that his latest artistic trend emerged with the drawings he made in California a few years ago. “Because of my job for the movie industry, I was constantly on the move, never staying in one place for long. I couldn’t paint as I did before – like landscapes of British Columbia. I couldn’t get familiar with any area. No recognizable landmarks. So I went with what I heard and saw: not objects, but colors and music, the sounds of cars and subway tickets, candy wrappers and moss-covered walls. I’d walk from work along a street and see posters, hear songs teenagers play on their phones.
I’d come home and sketch. I made piles of sketches, just scribbles, swirls and smudges, shapes and colors.”
His California sketches gave birth to paintings that reflected the green and gold and warmth of the Pacific coast. There is always the ocean and profusion of greenery. Colors interact and morph into each other, nurturing the whole. Although there is no sense of location, the artist’s inner meditations manifest through the looking glass of his perception.
When he then moved to London, England, his creative tune changed, echoing his surroundings.
“London was cooler and harder. It’s a very energetic, brash, intense city. California is a much softer place. London is also much more urban. Even music is different.”
His sketches changed, too, and the paintings from London don’t have the flowing quality of his California pictures. No bubbles or waves. The canvases sport sharper angles and longer bands. The shapes are leaner, less lush, and the lines dart across the images at full speed, like the rhythms of hard rock.
“I would pass a restaurant on a street, see its red sign and think: I should remember this color. Then I would come home and slash such a red on the painting. My paintings are not chaos. There is balance and order there.”
One of his London paintings resembles a bunch of seaweed. “We were in a Japanese restaurant,” he recalled. “I looked at seaweed, its vivid color. It was so beautiful. I kept the colors and shapes in my head for this painting.”
Another London painting has an unusual name: “Two Women at the St. Paul Colony.” Gillingham explained its etymology. “We were in London during the Occupy movement. There was a camp of those people beside St. Paul’s Cathedral. One day, my wife went there to take some photos, just as I was finishing this painting. Then I checked the internet and learned that one of our friends, another woman, went there at the same time. The painting is not political, but the title seemed appropriate.”
Gillingham said he doesn’t consider his art to be political. “I don’t want to push any agenda. I have opinions, like everyone else, but I don’t transfer them into my paintings. Art shouldn’t be divisive. When I paint, I don’t set up to make someone believe or tell him what to think. It’s more about esthetics. If a piece of my art is going to hang in someone’s home, it’s going to affect people, and I’d rather it inspired something positive.”
His London period produced several large and beautiful paintings, upbeat and positive; as soon as he moved back to Canada, to Montreal, his art changed again.
“I never look back at a location, never revisit. A new place inspires a new theme, a new atmosphere. It always reflects the place.”
In Montreal, he and his wife lived in a small, furnished apartment, with no extra space and, unlike the London paintings (he had a studio in London), the Montreal series consists of very small multimedia pieces.
“Montreal is frenetic, everything is going on,” he said. “The city really has strong street art. There are posters everywhere, posters on top of posters, going back for years. Sometimes someone would try to remove them, and the slice would be a couple fingers deep, revealing layers of letters and colors and zig-zaggy forms. I fell in love with these accidental images. I wanted to incorporate them into my art. I started cutting off the slabs of posters and painted on top.”
His Montreal collages are angular and aggressive, despite their small size. The colors and shapes vibrate and overlap, fighting with each other for space domination.
Only two paintings of the show belong to Vancouver, but Gillingham has only been back in this city for a few months. A Vancouver series is still in development.
New Work from the Road opened on Jan. 8 and will continue until Feb. 8. To learn more, visit derekgillingham.net.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].