“I always saw art as my legacy,” says Michael Gadlin, a Park Hill native who attended East High School (one of his pieces is now in the school’s permanent collection), studied and taught for years at the Art Students League, once owned a gallery in Denver and even hosted the Denver Channel 8 show “ArtScene.”
“I love tackling things—I think it’s an artist’s responsibility,” says Gadlin, who attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was the youngest artist to win Best of Show at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival. The cerebral artist, whose works include a public art installation that hangs in Denver’s District 2 Police Station, now shows at the Space Gallery on Santa Fe Drive, and has been invited to display his work around the world, from Japan to France to South Africa. “I paint my feelings and my emotions, and I always feel I have something to say,” he says. “Ultimately, every piece an artist creates is a self-portrait; it really reflects so much of you.”
We visited Gadlin at his roomy studio in the RiNo district, where his huge paintings are as dreamlike as they are thought-provoking.
Were you into art as a child? I always saw myself as a creator, solving creative problems. And I used to sketch a lot. My maternal grandfather was a World War II vet, and he was afraid of traveling alone, so my mom would give me a sketchbook and ask me to tag along with him after school. I would just draw cars, trucks and other things I saw from the car.
When you create art, do you ever feel you are channeling some higher power? There have been times when I did my best work and I would look at it and freak out. It felt so surreal, like an out-of-body experience. Sometimes as an artist you are so in the mode, the work is almost subconscious. I would look at a piece and think, “Can I ever do that again? Where was my head? Can I get there again?”
Does that mean you have trouble explaining your work? No. I learned really quickly, from all of my years teaching at the Art Students League, how to talk about my work. I love it when people take the time to look at my paintings and ask me about them. I have a reason for everything I put in, a purpose.
Your paintings are abstract. How do you come up with your ideas? My whole world is about interesting shapes—I don’t necessarily see things for what they are. Quang Ho, a very gifted artist I once studied under, told me, “I hope you remain abstract. You have such a knack for doing things from your feelings.” It’s not that other artists don’t feel, but with me the output is more about my feelings than the thing itself. But to be an abstract painter, you still need very rigorous classical training. You have to know the foundation first before breaking the rules. I never wanted to be an artist where I looked like I was getting away with something, where my stuff looks easy. That’s why I’ve always made my paintings complex.
As the former host of the Denver show “ArtScene,” what do you think about art criticism? I hate this idea that you can’t judge art. The attitude of “Oh, no, all art is the same” really bothers me. I didn’t get into this field and sacrifice so much for everyone to say, “Oh, no, all art’s subjective.” It’s like music or film, or anything that has a composition to it. There is an underlying structure that you can hold a piece of art up to, whether it’s Jackson Pollock or Raphael. There is an aesthetic understanding that is prewired. Just because you have perfect pitch doesn’t mean you automatically start making great albums.
Have you been influenced by other artists? You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, so there are definitely artists I’ve looked at for how they have gone about building a suite of work, a legacy, like Cy Twombly or Lucian Freud. After I left Pratt, the library was my school; I would go there as often as I could to read up on artists and movements. I’ve got a library full of books on the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, someone who didn’t get a lot of love in the ’50s and ’60s when she was coming up, but does now. Also Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Mapplethorpe for his controversial, but so beautiful, images. I love creating a little controversy with my work. If you’re going to be a painter, go all in and say something. I’m not just trying to make pictures that are pretty and look good in a space; I want them to be meaningful.
You’ve talked about how your art challenges assumptions. What do you mean? You’ve got to have art that answers a lot but asks a lot of questions, too. Art has to push. In simple terms, it needs to get people to think. Having taught art fundamentals for so long, I think that great art that really holds up and is part of your personal legacy has to challenge a lot of assumptions and be forward thinking, but still be true to who you are.
Find works by Gadlin and read more about him at michaelgadlin.com.