As I talked with artist Michael Gadlin in his studio in Blue Silo Studios north of Denver’s RINO district, a theme emerged: one of individuality, originality and risk-taking as an artist.
Gadlin’s late mentor, the sculptor Roland Bernier, would often repeat to him, “Michael, painting is dead. That’s why I don’t do it.” For many years, Gadlin thought this meant that he needed to quit painting and start making conceptual art. But over time, Gadlin realized this was not the case. “[Bernier] was wanting me to push– to push my painting. He wanted to challenge me beyond what was just throwing paint down from a design point of view onto canvas and hanging it up and being satisfied with decorating a wall. He was always challenging and pushing,” Gadlin explains. “You know everyone can get a tube and a paintbrush.”
The idea that “anyone” can be a painter seems to hold especially true currently. Any passing follow of artists on Instagram demonstrates a trendiness and similarity in the art being created and disseminated on social media. Artists see other artists’ works in their feeds and think that’s what they should be creating, but that doesn’t lend itself to individuality or trying new techniques and approaches to painting. Instead, it ends up being what Gadlin calls “the culture of sameness.” Thousands of artists creating similar versions of an abstract flower painting or landscape, indistinguishable from one another.
Gadlin, instead, is constantly seeking growth in his work, pushing himself to take risks, to try new things, to innovate his practice. To find his own voice amidst the Pinterest algorithms and newsfeeds that culminate in the “inundation of the same.”
His painting process is spontaneous and reactionary, inspired by a multitude of sources and life experiences, from urban art and design, to painters like Francis Bacon and Willem DeKooning, to travel in Europe and beyond, to growing up as mixed race in Colorado. He calls his paintings “layered marks of time,” crafted in response to the space of the canvas and marks, shapes and forms as they emerge through the process.
“This is my philosophy,” he states. “If I do not give myself a problem to solve, I’m not really doing it. So I will give myself something difficult to paint around, to have a response to. It’s why I love mixed media. Sometimes my first marks are not marks at all, they are collage.” Over time, he builds up a complex surface with layers of painting and drawing materials and collaged papers.
Whether the work is pure abstraction or figurative does not interest Gadlin, as he is equally capable of creating an original work in both genres– and often his work bridges the two. “I think from just a pure design point of view I’ve had fun being on the edge of ‘is it a figure, is it not a figure?’ The mixture of pure abstraction and what the Dutch masters are… Why can’t I take inspiration [from them] and suggest a figure?” His approach to figurative and abstract work is one way he reflects his experiences as a person of biracial heritage, not easily “categorized” by the outside world. “Part of my drive to paint figures is that I’m painting a self-portrait that is not known, because it’s the one area where I could be unsafe but feel safe and be anti-everything that people tend to label me.”
His recent work pushes into abstraction more. Elegant line work is drawn and carved on top of his rich surfaces, while blocks of muted hues interact with dark marks and veils of bright color.
Eschewing trends in art, pushing himself to create work that is individual and markedly his own in a crowded field of abstract painters, Gadlin’s work is expansive and adventurous, innovative and exploratory, a full expression of his life and experiences. You always know a Michael Gadlin when you see it.
Gadlin is newly represented by the Denver gallery K Contemporary. He hosts the show ‘Arts District’ on Colorado PBS, and serves on the boards of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and PlatteForum. Gadlin, a Denver-native, attended Metropolitan State University of Denver, as well as the Art Students League and my own alma mater, Pratt Institute, where he studied graphic design and fine art. His work is collected and exhibited widely, with inclusion in the Vance Kirkland Museum among other notable collections.
For more information, visit michaelgadlin.com.