Sound defines space for our bodies. Without thinking we hear the
information in sound and judge our position in space
accordingly. In his improvisational paintings, Gary
Denmark seems to listen to color in just this way. He follows an inner
rhythm with his tools, placing colors and textures intuitively. Like a
dancer following choreography, Denmark follows an inner sense of
direction. "At some point I stop and observe the cacophony of rhythms
I've put down and try to make sense of it. I always feel Iím building
out an environment, a place to go into," he says.
Denmarkís paintings often begin with shapes and colors inspired by an
actual place. He divides his time between a studio in San Francisco and
one high on a mesa in Southern Utah; both sites have generated series of
images. He painted Vulcano after visiting the island of the same name off
the coast of Sicily. The work may begin with a shape or color reminiscent
of a remembered place. With each new mark he drives the work closer to his
sense of the "place" it could be. As he describes the process,
"I try to establish a climate. Climate is intimately tied to
temperature, which could also be color temperature. For example, in
Vulcano there are the red and orange flashes of sulfurous heat but also a
blue that cools it down. I played with the memory of the volcanic island
surrounded by water."
Both natural and architectural environments suggest images to Denmark.
Spiderwalk began life as a small maquette that he made of a fantasy
landscape. He then translated the maquette's footprint onto canvas, where
it became the underlying structure of the gestures and forms.
To start Komadabad he photocopied floor plans of Byzantine temples,
then cut and recombined the images to make his own structures.
"Iíve always loved blueprints," he says, "But I seem to
need more than just a straightforward plan. Take Piranesiís drawings.
Theyíre obviously structures, but the line changes and introduces
mystery into the form."
The play of edges that Denmark noticed in Piranesiís work
characterizes his own painting, developing in manifold ways. Looking
closely at one of his intricate surfaces, a viewer finds many ways of
making an edge. The stroke of a palette knife may ring against a slightly
raised lip of paint laid on through a stencil or rise over a physical edge
of collaged paper before dissolving into sponged color.
Some of the tools and processes that Denmark uses on his paintings ó
stencils, squeegees, and sponges ó became familiar to him as a
printmaker. Just as his extensive background in printmaking informed his
approach to painting, the scale and improvisation of painting fed back
into his prints. From his experiences in both media emerged his
distinctive approach to building imagery in layers.
Even when he launches an image from something defined, such as an
architectural schematic, Denmark usually pushes on through several
formless stages, often covering the original image. Eventually, he tunes
the chaotic layers to visual harmony, defining the image but also leaving
it open enough to breathe. "The contrast between liquid paint
blending without structure juxtaposed with something that is structured is
fascinating. Can these opposite worlds come together and make their own
place?" he asks.
These issues of control and surrender, of structure and dissolution, of
existence and non-existence, have fundamental relevance to Denmark's life.
He was pushed into confronting his own mortality as a person living with
AIDS. "I had to hurry up and make sense of my life. Then, three years
ago, my health improved and I realized that I was living to live, not
living to die," he says. "It helped me look at why I make art.
Itís the action that keeps me in place. The work is about documenting my
process of doing what Iím doing."
The tension in Denmark's work between clarity and confusion reflects
his understanding that both "good" and "bad"
experiences are important to a full, vibrant life and art. "Some of
my best conversations with the work are when weíre having an
argument," he says. "Iím lost and Iíll make some kind of
gestural mark or put it on the floor and spill something and push the
squeegee across and step back and go... thatís what it needed. The work
is a history of all the moments together. To me, it makes really
interesting work when you see some clumsiness, and then thereís some
elegance. You put it all together and thatís the work."
Essay © 2000 by Meredith Tromble