George Gogas looks more Montana rancher than abstract impressionist painter. He’s in impeccable shape but wears weathered lines on his face. He dresses in jeans, work boots and a workman’s jacket. In fact, aside from his painting, Gogas is best known for judging quarter horse shows and running with the rodeo crowd. But there’s a clear disconnect when it comes to his aggressively abstract work, full of bold colors and energetic lines. Only when talking with the Montana native is it apparent how Western influences have informed his distinct painting style.
Gogas’ second solo show at the Missoula Art Museum opens Friday, Dec. 7, with a new collection titled When Charlie Joined Pablo’s Rock & Roll Band. This exhibit, a culmination of pieces created within the past three years, has none of the narrative qualities of Gogas’ previous series but still manages to capture some of the artist’s best work. With bright colors, curves, straight lines and circles, the pieces are playful and lively and, according to MAM’s curator of exhibitions, Stephen Glueckert, they reflect “a sense that he loves composing these things.”
“What I was so excited about is that this is a large body of work and it’s pretty inspirational. As an artist he’s at full stride in his 70s,” Glueckert says. “Gone are the direct narratives and stories. This work is an homage to abstract expressionism and the pop artists that influence him. In my mind, these pieces are about the discipline of painting.”
Gogas will sometimes spend half an hour in the lumber store looking for pieces of wood for the canvases he still constructs and stretches himself. He has a wry sense of humor, appreciates all kinds of painting and even acknowledges NASCAR’s effect on his current show.
“Sometimes I walk into Rosauers and, most of the time, on the right as you walk in, there are these Ducks Unlimited prints,” he says. “I stop and look at those things. I like good illustration and interesting subjects. I like realistic painting. I even like NASCAR paint jobs. They have great colors.”
As a young artist Gogas wanted to paint like Charlie Russell. It wasn’t until he attended graduate school at the University of Washington in the early 1950s and discovered modernism that his style evolved.
“It kicked a hole in the tent,” he says. “It freed people to do all sorts of things.”
The transformation led to his 1987 Judith Basin Encounter Series, in which he combined Russell’s strong narrative storytelling with the abstract styles of Picasso. The 47-piece series includes individual works such as “When Charlie and Pablo Had Breakfast at McDonald’s,” a reference to Russell’s “Bronc to Breakfast,” and “When Charlie and Pablo Went Broke in the Stock Market,” inspired by Russell’s “The Cinch Ring.”
“Charlie Russell is my favorite Western painter and Pablo Picasso and Russell were contemporaries, so I thought why not take Charlie Russell’s composition and transfer it into a pseudo-cubism—not copy Picasso but use some of his ideas,” Gogas explains. He adds that the series title, which references where Russell first landed in Montana, is meant to address the continuing conflict between Western wildlife art and Western contemporary art.
As for his new exhibit, Gogas says about three years ago he had “something to get off his chest.” He aspired to make more traditional abstraction pieces, but first needed to “find a place” for Russell. He painted a version of Picaso’s “Three Musicians” with a portrait of Russell as one of the faces of one of the musicians. He thought Russell needed to leave, go on the road for a while and figured what better way than for him to join Picasso’s band. With Russell now gone, at least figuratively, Gogas was free to pursue a new series of work.
His new collection contains no narrative storytelling, no social or political commentary. Gogas says for this series he wanted to work again with visual elements in a formal way before he ran out of energy or eyesight.
“They say what you see,” Gogas says about the work in When Charlie Joined Pablo’s Rock & Roll Band. “They are ineffable. I can’t really talk about them. I can talk about process and design principles, but I can’t talk about how you’ll react to them. If they are meaningful or not, it’s up to the observer.”
“This is an experiment in visual relationships,” he continues. “The pieces stand for themselves. They are from my perspective, experience and aesthetic. You’ll see similar colors, shapes and arrangements, but if people are looking for symbols or some kind of story, or peer into this and see horses running over a hill, they are indulging in their own personal Rorschach test. It’s not there.”
The Missoula Art Museum debuts When Charlie Joined Pablo’s Rock & Roll Band First Friday, Dec. 7, with an artist talk at 7 PM. The exhibit will be on display through February 9, 2008.