Famous across the world for its pristine coastline and stunning riviera, Santa Barbara has birthed countless plane-air painters that strive to capture its beauty… but amidst the vast amount of paintings of our beloved beaches and mountains, one young artist has emerged with his own voice, strong and passionate in his strokes and investigation of his own creativity. Harrison Gilman is quickly rising through the ranks of the art world, but has a very unique and delicate approach to his craft. We caught up with the Santa Barbara native, to find out more about him and his process…
Who are you?
My name is Harrison Gilman. I’m 23 years old. I was born in Los Angeles and raised in Santa Barbara, where I am currently based.
I was always making things as a kid, lots of stuff with popsicle sticks, shooting little movies, drawing comics. I started taking film seriously my senior year of high school, and my professor insisted I submit my work into the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting Competition. I was a finalist in both categories, which was a first for the competition. I won the Filmmaking Award.
Before then, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college, but winning that award made it apparent I should give film a shot. I applied to NYU’s film school and got accepted, after being put on the waitlist and then flying out to New York to scramble around the film school and find anyone who would watch my film reel. It was a bit of a miracle. A couple years into NYU, I started getting turned off by the way I was being taught to make films. Too much structure. I couldn’t just run around with a camera and make anything. I was also dealing with a lot of internal angst at the time as well. It was a good time to start painting.
I thought about transferring schools or switching majors, but I didn’t want the same thing to happen to painting that happened to film. So I kept taking film classes, but it was really just to fulfill the requirements to get the degree. I used the rest of my time to get a Minor in Art History and a Minor in the Business of Entertainment, Media, and Technology. Those minors gave me a good foundation for the art world.
I had a lot of paintings stored up by my senior year. My girlfriend at the time became my manager, and we made a website and set the goal to get in my first show by the time I graduated. I received an offer to be in the We Rise Art Fair in Los Angeles a week before graduation. My first group show and my work is being shown next to Shepard Fairey. It was crazy. That’s when I started calling myself an artist. I showed in a couple of group shows in Santa Barbara that summer.
My first solo show, Breaking Ground, showed at Galerie Tangerine in Nashville, Tennessee. It was up for a whole quarter. February through May. 29 pieces. I’m happy to say that it went very well.
My next solo show is scheduled for November at the Brannan Mason Gallery in Downtown LA.
Describe your medium and process?
My primary three mediums when I paint are acrylic, oil pastel, and charcoal. But I also use spray paint, dirt, sand, broken glass, metal, wood, tape, wine, beer, coffee. I also use a pencil.
My style changes depending on the medium and the surface I’m working on.
My process would be best described as going in and out of a stream of consciousness. Or perhaps a state of subconscious. I rarely have a trajectory when I begin a painting. I try not to. The first thing I do is just put a line down, a completely insignificant line. It eases the pressure. You have to start somewhere, I continue with unrestrained gestural movements. Then there’s something on the canvas, and it becomes sort of a game like looking at clouds. I go back and forth, trying to define what I see and then let myself go again. Changing mediums helps facilitate that. Charcoal is free flowing, the oil pastel brings things into focus. Paint works for both. It’s a ping pong like that all the way through. Between knowing and not knowing, chaos and harmony.
The process changes with every painting, but the common denominator is letting whatever happens, happen. Though that process may seem primarily fit for abstraction, it also applies to when I’m doing representational work.
How did you find your passion? Who/what influences you?
As I already brushed upon, I found my passion for painting in film school. It was very hard to have requirements and deadlines in the creative process. I didn’t always follow the directions. I think its because everything I made was very personal. I was drawing a lot. A lot in class. Those were great drawings. I started doing some smaller paintings, and I found that I enjoyed it more than film. I loved the autonomy.
Then I got a set of oil sticks for Christmas my sophomore year of college. A very cool medium. Like giant gushy crayons made from coagulated oil paint. Basquiat used them a lot. Using them feels like a combination of drawing and painting. Thats was when I started making abstract work. I would set a piece of paper down on the dining room table, turn on some music, and let my hand just go. I called it hand dancing.
The next development came from a little piece of advice from a family friend. He told me to “make big art.” So I went to the art store and bought a yard of unstretched canvas. The rolls are 5 feet tall, so its 5X3. It felt huge after after working in notebooks. I took it back to my apartment in Brooklyn and nailed it to my bedroom wall. I was so excited and terrified. I was shaking. The moment the paint hit the canvas was the best feeling in the world. I sat there and made a piece in one sitting.
My first body of work was made in my bedroom in Brooklyn. That was an interesting experience. Sleeping next to my paintings. Paint splattered on the floor and the walls and the bedsheets. I would come home from school every day and paint. It became a refuge. It still is.
Being a self-taught artist, I’m inspired by the self-taught artists that came before me. There was a mid-century art movement called Art Brut (meaning Raw Art or Rough Art) which was the first to formally recognize the unique style of self-taught artists. It embraces children’s art, art of the mentally ill, and graffiti. The movement was started by an artist named Jean Dubuffet, who is on of my favorites. Some of my other inspirations, Jean Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly, could be considered part of this genre though they didn’t specifically identify it. I also love Helen Frankenthaler, AR Penck, Neo Rauch, and Pablo Picasso.
What exhilarates you about making your work?
What exhilarates me most is that every painting is the leap into the unknown. I don’t plan what I’m going to make. The more I can accept what I’m doing without questioning it, the more genuine the work feels, and that results in good work. It’s a good practice in life; accepting the unknown. The second most exhilarating part is stepping back and looking at what I’ve made. Since I work in a state of subconsciousness, the paintings tend to reveal something that was going on internally. It’s part of why I do it. Looking at my art leads to a lot of self-realization. There’s this part in Letters on Cezanne by Rainer Marie-Rilke where he talks about how the art is the “epitome of the artist.” The dictionary calls an epitome “a typical or ideal example” or “a summary.” That’s how I feel about my work. It’s an epitome of myself. It feels like a reflection. That is very exhilarating when I don’t know how that is going to manifest.
Are there any common ideas that you explore across your larger bodies or work?
The central idea that I want to accomplish in a painting is that the paint should feel like belongs to on the canvas. Like it’s just natural for it to be there. I really like this idea of things feeling natural. I think the words “natural” and “perfect” should be considered synonymous, and in nature there are imperfections. And somehow imperfections make things perfect. They make things real. There’s a Japanese philosophy of aesthetic called “wabi-sabi” that focuses on this idea. It embraces imperfections, transience, and decay. You see it a lot in Japanese handmade pottery. It can be lopsided or cracked or discolored. I love it. I also love the idea of decay. Rust, patina, staining. I find all of that stuff to be beautiful.
I also have this idea I like to explore that art is an artifact. It’s funny if you break it up “art” “i” and “fact.” It’s creation, the individual, and that investigative truth. Digging things up. It works with the subconscious approach. I see each one of my paintings as a product of all of the moments that lead up to the moment of creation. I see them a documentation of the internal and external factors that come into play in the process. Like an artifact, they’re usually one little broken piece of the moment, but it represents the whole.
Your art constantly evolves. Where is it going? Are you in control of its evolution or do you go where it takes you?
My art does constantly evolve. It evolves at the drop of a pin. My style changes a lot depending on the medium. I have so many different styles that it used to concern me. I used to feel the inclination to have one specific style so people could recognize my work. But I’ve found that even through all the different styles, there is some inexplicable that connects it all. I’ll never be able to control the evolution, but I’m getting better at seeing what’s on the horizon.
I feel ready to go deeper into some of the individual styles. I have found that the more I work on an abstract piece, the less abstract it becomes. I discovered this recently when I started working on a smaller scale. I had a long period of putting all of my energy into large canvases, and it inherently takes more patience to cover that much blank space. When I put the same amount of patience into smaller work, I start honing in on those details. The work becomes meditative. Things that were obscure come into focus. Sometimes it’s scary doing that because it’s revealing a clearer image of that state of subconscious vulnerability, but it’s very satisfying.
I have been experimenting with some new mediums. One is working with concrete; creating slabs to paint on and for embedding found objects. I love found objects. Another is word art. I bought a typewriter recently. It’s a magical machines. You can do a lot more than you think.
Do you ever paint with the public’s perception in mind?
That’s an interesting question. It’s a yes and no. I try to really “get in the moment” when I paint, and when I’m in that place, the outside world disappears. But I recognize there are visual elements that we as humans inherently find pleasing. Things like a primary color palette, gridded compositions, symmetry, and basic symbols. I guess you could call that part of the public perception, but it’s also part of human nature. When I step back to look at a piece, I ask myself if any of these elements are there. And it’s not because I’m asking myself whether people will like it, I’m asking myself if it’s intrinsically beautiful.
But we are all also influenced by the people that we admire. That influence comes whether we like it or not. The artists I admire are shown at the Whitney Museum and the MET and the MOMA. If a piece of art is in a museum, it becomes a part of the ubiquitous standard of what is “good art.” This can’t go without saying that we have all seen a painting in a museum that we may think is absolute crap. But by being inspired by the non-crap paintings in museums, I am inherently working towards something that has already been standardized as “good” by the public perception.
What’s the more powerful entity in your life - your art or yourself? What guides what?
It’s one and the same. The side of prioritizing “the self” stems from a point in my life where I realized one can treat all life as art. It’s definitely corny, but in anything we do, we can put it in the context “the art of…” The art of making the bed, the art of walking, the art of cooking dinner. Everyone has their own style in doing these things. So being an artist, I try to see everything I do as an exercise of artistic expression and style. When I arrange things on the bedside table, it’s a matter of composition. When I choose which books I want to read, I search out old copies that have beautiful cover art and that patina and that old book smell. I believe these exercises of “the self” are what inspires my art as much as looking at master painters.
These peculiarities can often become a burden. I can feel out of wack when things aren’t aesthetically pleasing. So I make it a priority. And so I suppose in that way the art comes first. The “art of things” is what guides me.
There’s another thing I think about in relation to that question. I often paint rather quickly. I’ll finish a large canvas in a few hours because I want it embody a single stream of consciousness And you see these paintings that can be comprised of a single brushstroke that go for millions of dollars. And sometimes I ask myself what people are paying for. And I realized It’s not an hourly thing. For me, 99% of the work is the intention I put into my life in order for the art to manifest at the moment of creation. I put all this energy into “the self,” but it’s for the sake of the art. I don’t know which comes first. It’s a great question.
What’s in your immediate future?
I just built a new painting studio in my dads backyard, and I’ve been putting a lot of time into buffing it out. It’s just a little 10x10 wooden box. The first studio comprised of a 10x10 wooden platform with a canvas vendor tent attached. I used that for about six months until it got really windy this past Christmas and the tent flew up in the air and crashed 20 feet down the yard. So we built one out of wood on the same platform. It’s a beautiful space. The backyard is a little forest and I’m surrounded by trees. There’s no running water. I use buckets. There’s a hundred foot extension cord so I can plug in some lights. It’s a little raw, but it helps me focus.
I think my style is going to change now that I’ll be working in a more enclosed space. The previous set-up was completely exposed to the elements and it was a great place to get messy. I’m going to keep the new space clean and organized. I think it’ll allow me to take my time and go deeper into some of those styles like I mentioned before. I’m very excited.
Any long-term goals, plans, ideas…?
I’m pretty sure I’ll be making art for the rest of my life. It makes me happy. I do want to be in a museum some day. But I hope there’s lots of bends and turns to get to that point. I still love film, and I love fashion and photography and product design. I want to get into these fields and learn the craft and collaborate with people. My greatest desire is reach a point where I can find the talent across all mediums, people that are making the content that I want the world to see, and give those talented people the resources to make their content. I want the world to see content that makes them feel good. To me, Ferris Bueller’s Day off is as important as Shawshank Redemption. But whatever comes out of those endeavors, I will always want be identified as an artist.