The Surface World Of Charles Gniech

Charles Gniech finds inspiration in surface. His latest work explores the quiet, meditative qualities of prehistoric stone circles in Great Britain.

Subtle Breeze 36x72 acrylic on canvas

Many of these monumental stone structures possess fluid surface-patterns that convey a feeling of harmony and tranquility. The color schemes began based on observations of color in the natural world, and their calming effect on the human psyche. Gniech’s paintings can be interpreted in a variety of ways. He says of his work, “I have taken some artistic liberties, in the replication, manipulation and abstraction of the surface patterns found on these massive stone slabs, yet the work continues to convey the serene qualities regularly associated with nature and inner peace.” This series varies significantly from Gniech’s earlier work, which consists largely of portraits and figures with a strong sense of light.  For Gniech, the artmaking process is as reflective and soothing as the visual product that results from it. His ethereal acrylic paintings give the viewer an immersive sense of calm, while simultaneously stimulating the viewer’s sense of curiosity and wonder. Whether the color palette is cool, warm, earth-toned, or bright, each of his paintings possesses a spiritual quality.

Striation Red 24x24 acrylic on canvas

I spent some time talking to Gniech to get more insight into his inspiration, process, and the end result. When asked what the most indispensable tool in his studio is, Gniech said, “So many things are necessary for what I do. Obviously if the basics disappeared (brushes, fluid, paint), I wouldn’t be able to work, but there are other crucial elements. My studio space and the books I keep write in are necessary to my artmaking process. I have a tendency to spend a lot of time thinking about why I’m doing what I’m doing. I keep records of what I’m working on or thinking about, so that when things get hectic and I have to step away, the documentation allows me to glide back in seamlessly. I have a futon in my studio where I can just sit and think, in the middle of my process. If I distance myself a bit, I can really seeit. It can be a very eye-opening experience.”  To Gniech, the most fulfilling aspect of painting is the time spent creating in solitude, which is a very contemplative and meditative practice for him. He spends endless hours painstakingly creating his pieces, and often loses himself in the process. “It is comparable to runner’s high,” he said. Conversely, the most frustrating part of painting is when life gets in the way and Gniech has to deal with other things, rather than being in the moment. “However, if you think about it in terms of divine intervention, it probably means that you need to get away from [artmaking] anyway, at least momentarily.”  Artists who expel a lot of energy and soul into a work sometimes find it difficult to part with the finished product. Gniech, however, enjoys sharing his artwork and seeing firsthand the effect it has on the person who buys it.  “Most of the time, people who purchase the work become a part of my life. For instance, there was a woman who walked into a gallery where some of my work was on display. She was retired, probably in her mid-sixties, and had never bought a piece of original artwork before. She stood in front of my painting and cried, and knew immediately that she wanted it to be hers. She wanted to meet the artist, so I drove to her house and hung the painting for her. The woman didn’t live in an extravagant home- cozy and welcoming, yes, but it was very middle America. Many people who purchase artwork are a little more well off, and the art often becomes a piece of furniture. I was pleasantly surprised that somebody with a modest income had made a real investment in a piece of artwork, and all because she fell in love with it. It gave her so much joy. That whole experience was very moving to me.”

Cornerstone II 24x24 acrylic on canvas

I wanted to know which contemporary artists inspire Gniech. Often, knowing which artists another artist is moved by (even if their work is nothing alike) lends some insight into his or her thought process. Agnes Martin is an artist whose work provides great stimulation and encouragement to Gniech. He enjoys her linear, repetitive, serene works on paper, and would love to be associated with “that kind of meticulous detail.” It is obvious when comparing the two artists that their work possesses similar styles and aesthetics. Gniech is also a fan of Robert Lostutter’s large, extremely detailed figurative watercolor paintings. “He paints these huge watercolor pieces with a thin, small paintbrush. They’re somewhat grotesque, almost monstrous, and I find them really interesting.” One may not connect Lostutter’s paintings with Gniech’s current body of work, but having seen his earlier figurative work, it is clearer to see why Lostutter’s art piques Gniech’s interest.  It is fascinating to discover the way in which an individual ventures into a career in fine art. Some know from childhood that being an artist his or her destined profession. Others fall into it in a more happenstance manner, or switch occupations later in life. “I do not believe that artists choose to pursue this avenue of work, it just kind of happens. There’s often no way around it,” Gniech said. After graduating high school, he went to a junior college. His father wanted him to take business classes, but Gniech was more interested in the fine art courses being offered. So, while doing what he was “supposed” to be doing (taking core classes in subjects like management and computer software), all of his elective classes consisted of art. It was there that he truly discovered his calling.  While completing his MFA in painting at Northern Illinois University, Gneich got a scholarship. In exchange for teaching two drawing classes each semester, he was given a stipend, which provided enough income to live alone in an apartment off campus, as well as an off campus studio in which to paint. He describes these two years as some of the best of his life. “There was so much freedom, so much energy,” he said. Communicating with other graduate students and professors about art, and having time to simply createprovided Gniech with an incredible and invaluable experience.

Red Surface 24x24 acrylic on canvas

In the early 90s, Gniech took his first trip abroad, which led to his current body of work. He got the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Great Britain, and wound up spending some time on his own at Stonehenge.  “The meditative atmosphere of Stonehenge and other rock formations in Great Britain possesses amazing power and energy. My earlier work is a more figurative visual expression of the rock formations. While my current body of work deals with the same content, it focuses more on the surface forms.” Great Britain continues to provide a source of inspiration, as Gniech has been back to visit numerous times since his initial experience overseas.   This time spent abroad proved to be a very enlightening period for Gniech, as he was able to do some soul searching and meet some invaluable friends along the way. “Traveling the world in your twenties and thirties is a great way to learn more about who you are as a person and figure out what life is about. I recommend seeing new places as often as possible,” Gniech said. It is not always a matter of money, either, according to Gniech. He spent a lot of time traveling with very little currency, and believes in divine intervention. “As long as you don’t push back, the universe will give you what you need,” he said.

In addition to creating work and exhibiting at the national level, Gniech also teaches, consults, and freelances. He is both a Professor of Art and the Exhibition Curator for Gallery 180 at the Illinois Institute of Art- Chicago. His upcoming exhibition at ZIA Gallery opens on October 19th, 2012, with an opening reception from 5:00-7:30 pm.

By Shannon Gallagher, MAM








Carl Wilen

Carl Wilen

Carl Wilen utilizes his imagination to create colorful scenes that reflect his intellect, humor, and sense of the absurd. His work combines both high and pop culture to boldly comment on society, technology, and human eccentricities. He has spent decades pursuing his creative endeavors, which include painting, drawing, and sculpture. Wilen, who began drawing at a young age, is heavily influenced by comic strips, model building, toys, games, and the contraptions depicted in Rube Goldberg’s illustrations. He merges these interests with parallel interests in more “traditional” pursuits: psychology, philosophy, literature, and art history. The results are whimsical, colorful images that possess humor and excite the eyes, while simultaneously expressing a deeper underlying social commentary.


Pencils & Tools

Wilen’s artistic career began at age 8, when he started drawing and experimenting with three dimensional arts. He began building model airplanes as a young boy, and by the age of 9, he had hand carved and painted every World War II fighter plane in existence out of balsa wood. His artistic practices did not stop there. Wilen copied cartoons from the Sunday newspaper until he could draw (from memory) characters that his friends, family, and peers could recognize. Artist George Wunder, who illustrated the comic Terry and the Pirates for 26 years, was a major inspiration to young Wilen. Friends and classmates asked him for his Piratesdrawings constantly, and as a result, he became a “rock star” among his peers. However, when Wunder retired, Wilen experienced his first artistic setback. The illustrator that took over for George Wunder utilized a different drawing style, which forced Wilen to explore other techniques, and ultimately, discover his own unique style. Cartoons and comics, however, have remained an integral part of Wilen’s artistic process. Much of his work is narrative and contains characters, some of which are based on real people in his life, and some of which come straight from the depths of his imagination.

Saturday Night Special - Carved Wood


La Charmeuse De Serpents (He Got Off On The Wrong Floor)

In school, Wilen had an art teacher who constantly encouraged him to pursue art and design. He did a lot of illustrations for school projects, and he always got exceptional grades on his work, which led him to pursue higher education in art. He attended the University of Illinois, where he obtained an assistantship and began teaching beginning drawing, painting, and architecture classes. During this time, he was drafted into the military and became an illustrator in the 5th Army Special Forces. In the time he spent in the army, Wilen worked with the military’s Meat and Dairy Hygiene School, creating realistic airbrush paintings of fish, chicken, and other foods in various states of decay, affected by different types of molds, fungi, and outside elements. These paintings were then used for testing students of the Meat and Dairy Hygiene School on their knowledge and ability to identify each type of decay. This extensive training in illustration resulted in two years of college credit.  Upon his return to civilian life, Wilen finished graduate school and landed a job at historically African-American Clark College, where he was named the chair of the art department during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The art program, which had been very minimal before, experienced explosive growth during Wilen’s time as department chair. He added four teachers, faculty and student exhibitions, and improved facilities. He spent four years at Clark College, all the while remaining heavily involved with the Martin Luther King, Jr. civil rights marches. Being one of the few Caucasians on the forefront of the cause, Wilen was well known among Atlanta journalists as an advocate for civil rights. Shortly thereafter, Wilen was offered a position in Charleston, Illinois at Eastern Illinois University to teach in the fine art department. He wound up staying for 32 years, but he never considered it a job. Instead, Wilen used his teaching career as a challenging but fun exercise exploring his own artistic process, while simultaneously helping students delve into their creativity and discover their potential. He found himself inspired by his students’ free and experimental nature. Wilen retired in 1994, but continues to reside and make art in Charleston and his summer home in Maine.

Homage To The The Alhambra (detail) cut paper and watercolor


Tarifa (We Shell Meet Again)

When asked about his process of connecting his experiences to his artwork, Wilen explains the importance that cartoons and comics have had in his artistic endeavors:  “I learned to draw from comics, each of which had a narrative and a theme, so I always have some kind of storyline in my mind when I begin a new piece. I like for there to be an underlying explanation as to what’s going on in the work, it gives me freedom to create my own personalities and also introduce well-known historical characters into my work, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Vincent Van Gogh. I characterize myself as a fiction writer as well.”  Wilen draws inspiration from Renaissance engravers, which is evident when viewing his work. These engravers did not have photography to rely on, so they needed to utilize printmaking in order to get exact copies. He enjoys imitating the style of those artists, while injecting his own life experiences- surrealism, dreams, relationships, embarrassing social situations. Wilen uses fine, meticulous lines, and estimates that he has probably spent more time sharpening his pencil than he has actually drawing. He uses an optovisor (a headband with two magnification lenses) given to him by his father-in-law, in order to achieve delicate details in his drawings.


Antithetical Board Game

Each of Wilen’s pieces starts as a fun, free-wheeling entity, a juxtaposition of various ideas. According to Wilen, the frustration of art-making comes when the fluidity and “in the moment” of it passes and one begins to intellectualize and get meticulous about composition. “When you start thinking too much, you prevent flow, progression, and freedom of movement. You change the ambiance of the painting. Artists must remain unencumbered by the history of painting and avoid getting wrapped up in unimportant details.” Wilen, who was impressed with the work of Max Ernst, remembers reading an interview in which Ernst was asked what the essence of surrealism was. Ernst replied,“You take a table, put a white tablecloth on it, and start putting disparate objects on it. If you run into the right kind of viewer, a receptive viewer, they will try to understand what’s happening by drawing inferences. They’ll put together a story, a scenario. If things are in some kind of order, it will open up a stream of consciousness in both parties, they interrelate. You can put things together that don’t go together- but depending on the way the medium is handled, there is unification that forces the viewer to come up with his or her own ideas about the work.”


Leopard Man

Viewers can certainly infer a variety of ideas from Wilen’s work. There is inherent comedy, drama, and sexuality in his work, in addition to commentary on history, current events, and the human condition. His wildly vivid and intricate artwork implores the viewer to examine each minute detail and create a story within their own mind. Wilen enjoys the fact that each person who views his work interprets it in his or her own way and takes something completely different away from it.  Carl Wilen’s work has been exhibited all over Chicago and the Midwest. He has an MFA from the University of Illinois, is Professor Emeritus of Eastern Illinois University, and is represented in the United States exclusively by ZIA Gallery.

By Shannon Gallagher, MAM



Dula And Wier At ZIA

Opening September 7th ZIA Gallery presents photorealistic paintings by Rick Dula and interpretive photographs of Outer India by Nevada Wier.

With works in private and public collections such as the Denver Museum of Art and Oakland Museum of Art, Rick Dula receives on-going recognition for his light and mood-filled depictions of American industry and urban landscape. In both subject and composition, connections can be found between Dula’s current works and those of the formidable Charles Sheeler. For both artists, photography is a tool in the building of a painting. Like Sheeler, Dula leans toward strong positive and negative shapes, environments devoid of people, and a distinctive feel for American industrial landscape.

While in the 20th century Sheeler extolled the clean, precise forms and power of the machine and industrial age, in the 21st century Dula expresses a fascination with decay of those 19th and 20th c. structures. He sees his depiction of the now rusty and corroded structures as expressing an American equivalent or kind of nostalgia for the beauty of crumbling “Old World” surfaces.

Nevada Wier’s photography reflects an obvious sensitivity to texture, surface and living history, but a fascination with humanity forms the core of her work. Her images of people and cultures from remote areas of the world inspire wonder and curiosity. Wier states: “As a photographer, my imperative is to witness and record my creative interpretation of the people and places I encounter. However, it is not enough to photograph an interesting person; I have to create an interesting image of an interesting person or place. India easily provides the interesting people! They are everywhere and willing to be photographed! A photographer’s perfect dream.”

Wier methodically, yet quickly, composes her photographs. Noting the lights, darks and forms around her subject, Wier may direct an individual to move slightly this way or that, but once she has captured the photograph, none of the content is altered or photo-shopped. Her careful eye results in distinguished bodies of work published in GEONational GeographicOutside and Smithsonian among others.

The levels of skill and interpretation of Nevada Wier’s photographs and Rick Dula’s paintings hold special depth and rewards to those lucky enough to study the works in person. Contrasts: Rick Dula (Paintings: American Industry and Urban Landscape) and Nevada Wier (Photographs: Outer India) are on view at ZIA Gallery September 7 – October 12, 2012. Visitors are invited to meet artist Rick Dula at the opening reception September 7, 5-7:30pm. Then on October 5, 7-8:30 Nevada Wier will be at the gallery. She will begin a talk at 7:30 followed by Q and A. The public is invited to meet this distinguished photographer.