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Biography of Geo Geller
[Montage of Geo Geller's Artwork]
[Picture of Geo Geller]
Art as a Self-Taught Journey
Some years ago I met Geo Geller, a self-taught artist who created works as he traveled around the world, finding materials and subject matter by happenstance. The page with his artwork contains a small, but generally representative sampling. This interview conveys a general sense of Geo's philosophy and views.
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Being an artist, people must be constantly asking you why you create. It's a silly question, but what do you tell them?
I tell them I makes things because my head is full of ideas needing to be born. Creating them and giving life to them is how I know that I am alive and living, and that I have lived and will live.
What do you paint?
I paint my dreams.
A lot of artists can't wait to sell a painting and get it out the door. Why do you keep yours?
My paintings are like my children. I have refused to sell my paintings when I was broke and hungry, because I didn't think the buyer would give them a good home. But I've also bartered paintings for food, shelter, medical care, or other necessities when I know the recipient will cherish the painting.
I keep my paintings because I never get tired of seeing them, and each one reminds me of where I was and what I was experiencing when I made it. You have to understand that I don't create paintings and sculptures; they create me and make me more aware of life. I learn from them and create them to take care of my imagination. I don't create paintings on comission to match people's carpets or to be commercially successful. I create art because I have to.
With all the art you've created and the positive response people have to it, one has to wonder why you don't show your work more often.
I created my paintings for me, and if they mean something to you, that's wonderful, but it wasn't why I made them.
Why are you trying to find homes for them now?
I want to find people who will adopt my paintings like they'd adopt a child. My paintings are part of me and I think of them as my children. It doesn't do them any good to be cooped up in the darkness. They need light and air to breathe in order to live, just like we do. I was just waiting for the right moment to find them homes where they belong. Matching a painting with someone who understands and appreciates the messages in it is a complicated process.
What are you trying to say in these paintings?
I first became interested in painting through my interest in dance and theatre. It's a lot of effort and trouble to put on a production, since you have to organize people and personalities. I discovered I could make a painting that's like an entire play or dance piece, and that says everything I wanted to say without dealing with the complexities of sets and actors, and all the unintended consequences of that dance. I wanted to show how I see humanity in all its true emotions and self-delusions and painting lets me have that conversation with myself and with an observer.
Human beings spend a lot of time deluding themselves. I wanted to know what we really think and feel, beyond the charades and masquerades, that we don't share with others, or even admit to ourselves. Did you ever think about how men, women, families and friends interact, and what do they think and feel while interacting? How do we express our emotions, like joy, sorrow, fear, life, death, disconnection or confusion? What are we trying to say?
You keep coming back to the notion of getting your ideas down on paper. Some of your works have pretty disturbing ideas in them. The people are so obviously unhappy.
Exactly! The people in my paintings are ordinary people I see walking down the street. They are a subtle mix of tenderness, vulnerability, gentleness, questioning, sadness, emptiness, suspicion, despair, hunger and fear. Basically, they are me and you. They show us emotions we don't like to see or even admit we have. You look at these disconnected people with distrustful and disconnected lives, wondering, "how did I get here" and "why am I so unhappy". That's their beauty. They are looking at us as much as we are at them.
So they are voyeuristic?
Maybe. We see vulnerability that we really shouldn't be seeing, or maybe we are really seeing a reflection of our own vulnerability that we so carefully hide from others. It's not always clear. Take the wedding invitaitons I painted on. These people are always thinking about where their joy and happiness are going, or perhaps went, and wondering about how to deal with the unintended consequences of life.
Do any of these works disturb you?
Sure. After I painted some of them I had to put them in another room, because they were much too raw and tortured for me to look at. Remember, I'm trying to capture emotional energy, both physical and invisible, but also subtlety, like in a film where actions are felt and not spoken. These emotions are not ones everyone wants to see. These people are looking at you for an answer to "who am I", "who will I be", "how did I end up as you or me", and "how did I get here"? They are vulnerable and innocent, and that's what makes them so interesting to me.
What concepts and ideas do you put into your paintings?
I mentioned how I was doing plays in paint. Each piece is a visual poem, like a one-act play, with characters and motivation, emotions and actions. I'll do some investigation into a common theme, even though I may have totally different mindset and execution. I call those recurring ideas "studies".
Can you give me some examples?
One study is "Conversations with Myself as a Bird". The bird represents my spirit, but also the means to save my spirit from being a prisoner of myself. Think of the bird as dreams, hopes, desires and a means to escape the physical world and go flying. A related study is something I call "Self Portrait Series". You'll see a sailboat in this study. The sailboat is me being tossed about by my world, and the sky and sea represent calm and stormy emotions. The mood of the sea reflects the subtleties of our environment, and how on some days we have calm environment but other days we have a stormy tempest.
So the painting's theme is really a metaphor for life.
Yes. How I see through other people's eyes and how they experience life is what really interest me and what I find to be so important. Another study I did was with figures I made from wire rod I found while living in Granada, Spain. They are people, sometimes dancing and sometimes standing still, but all of them are experiencing life in some way.
I did another series about the interactions of strange, distorted people with strange, distorted lives in strange, distorted houses and distorted apartment buildings. In that study I included a chair for the observer. Sometimes there's a table with wine and bread as a gesture of hospitality from me for the observer, who is simultaneously a observer for the performance and a participant.
So you view painting as theatre without words?
No, there are words, too. Many pieces have a poetic title expressing their essence, at least from my perspective. You might use a very different title, but they still have one. The title is my play as well as a little poetry. I have to figure out what the people, animals, flowers, and other things in my painting are doing. That's why it is so hard to give a painting a title. All pieces have a story about how they came to be created and what they mean to me, and that's what the title reflects. Sometimes the title is more important than the rest of the painting or what I paint it on.
That brings up the issue of your raw materials. Most seem to be non-traditional items you found or scrounged. Why is this, and where do you find them?
I prefer to create art from things I find. I even use pigments and materials from my surroundings. Some of the things I've used in art are fabrics, papers, wooden drawer bottoms, paintings, signs, architectural drawings and blueprints, table legs, shelves, serving trays, flooring, signs, shells, stringed instrument fret boards, mannequins and wire rod. Some of my material came from helping to clean out a framing shop that had lost its lease. The archival matte board I often use for paintings comes from the disposable presentations made by the advertising industry. People throw away a lot of things that still have life in them.
What makes you choose these non-traditional materials?
I don't choose them. They choose me. That's the important thing to remember. My goal is letting the energy inside the raw materials combine with my energy and the viewer's energy. I'm not going to fight with something and try to make it something it's not. Found materials are full of surprises leading to unusual juxtapositions. They have greater potential than things you buy at the store. You're just walking along and find something that can be made into art. That's what's so wonderful about discovering raw materials for art.
Remember, art is a journey and a process of discovery. It isn't a product, and when art is made like one it won't have any meaning or depth. I want to find the essence hiding inside of something, or maybe inside of me, and bring it to the surface. Store-bought materials don't have that inner life or structure to be discovered. When I give life to an idea or something hiding inside of raw material it's a lot like giving birth. Or maybe just giving birth to myself.
You've used a lot of different mediums for artwork. Furniture legs, nuts, sheet metal, etc. But you did a lot of painting. Why is that?
My paintings aren't just about paint on a surface. They are about my connection to the world and are a conversation with the observer who'll see the painting and the observer inside me. Painting is like creating an umbilical cord from my mind to the world since it connects both of us. I like to create things because I can get the ideas out of my head. Painting lets me do that a lot easier than I can with other materials.
You've done a lot with brown paper as a medium. What was hiding in there?
Now there's a story. I was wandering about New York, as I always do, and I stumbled across a five-foot-high roll of industrial brown paper in the trash. People throw out lots of interesting raw materials. So I saw this roll and it was perfect for painting on. But it was so heavy I didn't know how I could get it home. It probably weighed as much as I did. So I dragged and rolled it home. I'm still amazed I didn't hurt myself getting it home.
Then I cut sheets from it and cut those in half. The final size was about 2.5' x 3', which is perfect for painting. The paper has the perfect texture and structure for painting with sumi ink. You have to paint fast with sumi because it dries fast. And you need a good texture for the ink. So all those with brown paper paintings I did were hiding inside that textured paper.
Let's talk about some other unusual raw material. You've done a number of carvings and sculpture. How did you get the raw material for those and what did you find hiding in them?
The ebony carvings started life as stringed-instrument fret boards and some scrap materials donated by a friend of mine who repaired musical instruments. I looked at them and I saw figures. I don't know why, I just did.
Like the tagua nut carvings I made. In Ecuador they call these seeds vegetable ivory because of they are perfect for carving. I got them from a button maker who gave me some whole seeds to carve and play around with, to see what I could do with them. I looked at them and I saw heads and faces. That's just what I saw. Someone else might see something totally different or maybe even nothing at all.
How about the x-ray radiographs? How did you get them and what did you see in them?
The x-ray series series were done on discarded x-ray film. I found a pile of them one day when I was going somewhere. The key is to find figure out how the body part in each film is really a figure, or a part of a figure, or maybe a face. You can see them if you hold them up to the light and look.
Maybe a radiologist or a doctor never sees them, because they see these things every day and never look any deeper than the surface. But there is a lot more in there than meets the eye. I painted them hanging up on a window so I could see through them when I painted them. These are designed to be back lit, so that you get a merger of the painting and x-ray.
Just like you did with the building floorplans and figures in a medical book.
Right. Many years ago I found a medical book from 1939 when I was learning about the body and how it works, and even why it sometimes doesn't work. Years later I stumbled across the same book again and I was ruminating on the images and all of a sudden figured out how the drawings could be people. They just unfolded before me.
For example, a drawing of a mouth becomes a figure's mouth. Now here's something interesting to do. You should ask yourself, "why is she shouting?" But more importantly, "what is she saying?" Or the drawing of an eye becomes a staring eye, transfixing us with its unblinking gaze. Is it hostile, frightened, or angry? What does it see in us that we don't see in ourselves?
What about the building floorplans?
I found a pile that some architects threw away. There is a lot of writing on floorplans that is a kind of poetry. So I combined them with my own poetry. Sometimes I painted on it like a canvas. It's interesting painting on plastic sheets because of the way the paint wets the plastic.
I see a lot of yellows, reds, and blues in the floorplans. Do you have any colors you particularly like to use in your work?
I see color as part of life. In the fall and winter I often paint only in black because everything is going dormant. In the spring I paint flowers and use spring colors because it is a time to celebrate and sing. So the colors I use depends on the season and my mood.
Is there anything special about the pigments you use for your paint?
Some of them I find where I am when I'm creating a painting. Some paintings use earth and sand from where I was. Like the study I did with face paints from the indigenous Amazon natives in the Brazilian rainforest when I was living there.
I took the face paints and combined them with oil of urucun I harvested -- this is an oily seed -- and some linseed oil. Other times I'll use whatever is handy. When I was living near the Alhambra in Spain I used a hard shoe polish that I melted down and cast into crayons.
Shoe-polish crayons? I bet the manufacturer never thought of that.
That's for sure. I use lots of materials that way. For example, I like to use carpet glue.
I noticed that. Why do you do that?
I'm fascinated by carpet glue because it is just like painting with bubble gum. You can combine it multiple layers or thicknesses, using pigments or other materials to form a three-dimensional work. A lot of my "Tortured Souls" series uses carpet glue. It's an interesting medium because it never completely hardens.
It probably wouldn't make very good glue if it hardened.
Yes, that's true. But it also means that the piece is alive in some way, since the glue is still alive.
So how do you know when a piece is finished if it's always "alive"?
When it tells you it's done. You can't listen to people about this. A piece is done when it's done. Sometimes I stop working on a piece when you might think it is incomplete. But it isn't, since there is room for the imagination to grow in the gaps. What is omitted from the painting is often just as critical as what is put in.
Just as how whitespace is critical for design and typography.
Yes. You have to think about how the empty space interacts with the rest of the piece. Or how some unintended damage to a piece during the creative process really enhances it. In Granada, Spain I had an exhibition in a bar named something like the Galleria. One day I came back and found that someone had burned a piece or two with a cigarette, the Spanish smoke a lot in bars, and I was excited because the piece had started developing its own history. The owner thought I would be angry and offended, but I wasn't. I was delighted which surprised everyone.
So what do you think about when you've completed something?
The cycle of creation is important to me. I like to complete cycles, since they are part of the journey in life. You have to look for moments beyond the usual and grab them and just hang on for the ride. People should dream instead of being afraid to live. When you are excited about something you are full of energy, and this energy invites and incites you to create, experience, and live. Afterwards you know you've lived because you left behind a memento marking the world, and one that will always remind you of that special moment when you created it.
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Geo's materials, techniques, and subject matter are often unconventional. The results, however, are like all art: they speak to us with hushed whispers or bold shouts, or, perhaps, even not at all. If they speak to you in some way, please let us know.
Many pieces are part of a large series. Details upon request.
[Montage of Geo Geller's Artwork]
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