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