By Aaron Collins
Lindsay, California is a fairly remote town in Tulare County, California, fully 5,566 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the world’s great art capitals. Those two disparate locations – the former rural and relatively upstart, compared with St. Petersburg’s long and storied past, urbanity, and art historical significance – couldn’t be more absurdly juxtaposed.
So what line possibly connects them? Currently, that would be the one drawn by artist Shane Guffogg, a Lindsay native and longtime Los Angeles resident (longtime readers may recall Jan. ’08 issue’s feature on Guffogg). Guffogg held exhibitions in two very different locales in 2015; a solo show titled GUFFOGG at the Imperial Academy of Art Museum in St. Petersburg, currently the largest in Russia by any living American artist; and the second a 30-year retrospective of his artwork mounted in the more modest location of Lindsay, whose citizens converted their vacated former public library into an art gallery and historical museum.
A previous retrospective of his career was held in Naples, Italy. The attention has landed him in the European media including popular talk shows. Guffogg was even featured in a cooking segment on Good Morning St. Petersburg, as well as a morning talk show in Rome. It seems that in Europe, artists are treated as celebrities or even rock stars, while the very same individuals may go completely unrecognized by the media and general public in the U.S. The closest to mass media Guffogg has gotten in the U.S. was thanks to an innovative Los Angeles billboard series that features images by top contemporary artists, which recently included his work along with many other notables including the famed conceptual artist Ed Ruscha, for whom Guffogg once served as studio assistant.
“It’s one thing to make art and show it locally; it’s a whole other ballgame to show your art on the world stage. I think it’s something every artist dreams of, but it’s not so easy to attain,” said Guffogg. “The people in my hometown have either watched my career, or heard about it through the grapevine, and they were all very excited to have me back,” he says of the show he suggested.
So arguably, Guffogg’s career did not need any boost from a Lindsay venue, which is off the art world’s beaten path, to say the least. But the sentimental value to Guffogg was considerable, offering a chance for reflection on how far he has come, now in his early 50s with a child of his own. Future shows for 2016 include the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, then on to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where the Russian exhibition will travel in the fall. He said he wanted Lindsay kids like him to see a path in the arts that they might not otherwise consider.
No one is more aware of his unlikely story than Guffogg himself, who keeps studios in both L.A. and even humbler- than-Lindsay town of Strathmore, just down the road where his parents moved him to their farm while still a schoolboy. “The last painting I made in Strathmore is now in Russia. It was amusing to see the painting first in Strathmore, un- stretch it, and roll onto a tube, drive it to L.A., then have it picked up by a crating company in L.A., then see it a month later in Russia, re-stretched and hanging on a museum wall. I couldn’t help but smile as I walked through the museum, remembering where and when I made certain paintings.”
Like that invisible line between Lindsay and Russia, the convoluted lines appearing in Guffogg’s works may seem absurd in their own right. But as with much of contemporary art generally, there is much more than meets the eye. Conceptually, these are lines of another sort.
Not unlike the gestural records of Jackson Pollock’s mid-century masterpieces, Guffogg tames abstract, unruly masses with a masterful hand, casting a classical light that locks form into surface, the abstract made flesh. The spiritual glow and Renaissance palette are not accidental. Like Pollock, Guffogg makes a physical record via calligraphic marks, but he doesn’t stop there. Whereas Pollock’s lines constituted a sort of finality laid down in service of a nonobjective artwork, Guffogg subjugates line by pushing gesture even further, into representation. The results are perhaps more akin in spirit not to Pollock, but to the famed Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein’s massive brushstroke sculptures, which elevate single paint strokes to the ultimate gesture.
Layer upon layer of Guffogg’s translucent paint medium, sometimes 80 or more in a single painting, result in luminous surfaces that shimmer and invite close scrutiny, recalling both the art historical past’s glazing techniques just as his impulses clearly locate the work in the present. The late abstraction champion and top New York critic of his day, Clement Greenberg, might be mortified philosophically at abstraction’s suggested servitude to representational painting, but artists long ago overthrew such rigid strictures.
In fact, Guffogg has long been interested in historical painting. Some of his earliest works, currently on view in his Lindsay retrospective, reveal a fascination with earlier art eras. He was known to make drawing copies of the Mona Lisa and other famous artworks. After graduating high school in Strathmore, he headed to Europe, where he recalls a transformative moment standing in front of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” where he says he had an epiphany of sorts and knew what his art was to become.
That interest in Leonardo persists to this day. Guffogg has devoted an entire series to a singular work of the master’s, Portrait of Ginevra de Benci, whose intricate curls and fine lines provide seemingly endless fascination for Guffogg. “I had an image of Leonardo’s painting taped to my studio wall that I was constantly looking at to visually converse with, and by that I mean I would take a small section of the painting and follow the lines or contours, replicate the colors, etc. That got me thinking more about portraiture, which got me thinking more about the physical world instead of the idea of things. That led me to start painting with a wider brush, to create movements that were more three dimensional, and I began painting these brush strokes as real things, so, in essence, I am making abstraction my subject matter, which then makes me a realist. My new paintings are painted with numerous light sources that cast shadows, creating a trompe l’oeil effect. And, to add to the nod to figurative art, I use a lot of flesh tones for these movements.”
Guffogg says the wider brush makes the images more calligraphic and, especially for the large paintings, more physical. “I like to think of them as portraits of wordless poems.”
Contemporary art world audiences have warmed to the former Tulare County boy’s distinctive take on art. As proof, his works are now included in private collections around the world, and has art dealer representation in L.A., Chicago, and Europe. His works have been seen in auction houses from Monaco to New York. Numerous entertainment industry figures and L.A. celebrities like Meg Ryan and others own his work, among others.
But what does this internationally- known art world figure’s art have to say to locals in a Central California town whose art enthusiasts might prefer Western Art or pastoral landscapes featuring cattle? “I think that if artists are really pursuing their truth, and I use a capitol “T” there, then the Truth goes beyond the maker and speaks to people,” says Guffogg. “I set out many years ago to make art that would speak to people all over the world, to find that universal visual language and present it through paint. Based on how things have been going, I would say that is happening.”
We cite as proof the t-shirt produced on occasion of the local show for Guffogg by the Lindsay Art Gallery organizers, which lists his exhibiting cities: “Los Angeles | Chicago | New York | Rome | Napoli | Venice | St. Petersburg | Paris | Lindsay.” So even the small town residents exhibit appreciation for a little absurd irony, as well as a great deal of pride in Guffogg, their local-boy-made-good.
After the Lindsay show closes this winter (its run was recently extended), the artist hopes to continue his presence in Tulare County. He sees it as an affordable alternative to L.A. for artmaking in a post-’08 economy. “Of course, Tulare County is a universe away in terms of its culture and density of people, but it also has some things which are sought after by artists: Affordable living; space; and quiet. A lot of artists have left New York since it’s too expensive, and they’re making their way to Detroit because it’s affordable and there are plenty of buildings to live and work in,” said Guffogg.
He also points out Marfa, Texas, which was the home of the New York sculptor Donald Judd. “He made Marfa, a completely unknown town in the middle of nowhere, into a destination for art lovers and creative people. Los Angeles is now viewed globally as the art center of the world, which is both good and bad. Good because there is a lot of creative energy happening everywhere, bad because artists are moving to L.A. from all over, making studios more expensive. The downtown Arts District in L.A. is now pushing out the artists as the real estate becomes more valuable. I look at the empty store fronts on Main Street in Porterville or Lindsay and wonder, what would happen if some artists used them for studios or galleries?”
Guffogg thinks his show in Lindsay could be the beginning of something like that. “Time will tell, of course, but I do plan on being more involved in the area, as my schedule allows. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and, as artists need space to live and work, places like Lindsay could easily become homes for a handful of artists.”