Pop’s Anti-hero: The work of James Francis Gill

Pop’s Anti-hero: The work of James Francis Gill

By: Mariano Alejandro Ribeiro

The work of James Francis Gill, which came to the Algarve in September of 2018, helped define the world of American contemporary art in the 1960s

His pieces have been on display on iconic walls such as in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in the Smithsonian Institute. They have been on the covers of renowned magazines such as Time and LIFE. He depicted, firsthand, entertainment figures such as John Wayne and Paul Newman, and even formed friendships with them, but it was his triptych of Marilyn Monroe that catapulted him to fame. His interest in public figures, were they artists or political activists, and the chance to mingle with them made James Francis Gill’s art a true testimony of his generation.

James Francis Gill

This achievement was witnessed in the Algarve in September of 2018, when his works were displayed at the Conrad Algarve hotel, with the support of ArtCatto gallery. The exhibition was a retrospective of the artist’s work, touching on different stages over the years of one of the last living North-American Pop Art painters.

James Francis Gill’s story is quite unusual, when considering the almost immediate popularity he reached early in his career and its abrupt ending, when he chose to leave the profession in 1972. Born in Texas, USA, in 1934, and with a degree in architecture, it was in Los Angeles that Gill found his audience. He was featured in public and private collections, with several corporations interested in acquiring his pieces.

In 1967, an exhibition in Brazil exposed his work to the international community. São Paulo 9 – Environment United States: 1957-1967 allowed him to share his work alongside some of the biggest names in American contemporary art; Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana were among the artists exhibiting.

However, growing interest from glamorous Hollywood personalities in his art led him to question the nature of his creative process. In the early 1970s, Gill decided to abandon the art world for good. He disposed of his pieces at a garage sale, sold his house and left Los Angeles, the city where he had risen to stardom. “I came to the conclusion that the people surrounding me, the rich and famous, were not happy,” the artist would state, years later. “Neither fame nor money bring happiness; only being in tune with what you do in your life makes you happy.”

This self-imposed exile comes from the painter’s desire to develop his artistic expression without committing to the responsibilities of the material world. In the following years, Gill never stopped painting, but his work would remain hidden from the public for over two decades, something that reveals not only his wish to detach himself from what the art world entails, but also his massive dedication to the creative process.

But in the mid-90s, an article in the art magazine of the Smithsonian American Art Museum would completely change his life. David McCarthy penned the piece that would bring him back into the spotlight of the world of contemporary art. Since 1997, Gill’s work has been displayed at over 100 different events in galleries and museums all over the world.

His paintings stand out for the fresh lines, which play with the viewer’s perception, using cultural references, often distorted by chromatic aberrations that expand along the canvas. In the past decade, the work of James Francis Gill has diverted to portraits, often turning to the abstract to work the image of icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly and John Wayne. This is a new chapter, worlds away from the pieces produced at the start of his career, in which political themes like the Vietnam War predominate.

“There are rules to what goes on the canvas, but when you are a political commentator it is vital to get the message across,” the artist says. “Now I simply try to let myself be surprised by my work and surprise those who look at it.”

Despite everything, photography is also one of the cornerstones of this new approach, as he introduces computerised sketching techniques from his training as an architect. The composition of his paintings is done on a computer, using what he calls the “metamage” style, or a mixed technique.

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