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By Dan Gheno

As a traditional, figurative artist born in the high years of the Abstract Expressionist movement, I feel a need to fuse various historical and modern concerns in my work. I feel a great interest in the contemporary, formal issues of the canvas surface, paint quality and gestural expressiveness. But at the same time--- and primarily--- Iím fixated and focused on the human figure and the concerns of humanityís form, its anatomy, its environment, and its psychological concerns.

Within this traditional framework, I often try to project into my work the fear, angst, alienation and the contravening needs and longings for quiet, security and solitude that the modern setting produces in us. I often try for a Baroque feeling of form, using the twisting and turning movements of light and dark to emphasize these contemporary, emotional sensibilities, while also trying to reinforce the sculptural quality of an object or person. For similar reasons, I often purposely distort traditional perspective to lead the viewer on an agitated ride through the picture surface.


I mostly paint people that I know intimately as friends or close acquaintances. But I rarely look upon the individual "model" as an opportunity to do a portrait in the classic sense. I normally utilize the model as an actor, and I most often see the model as a player in a metaphorical tableau, depicting various states of mind, sometimes reflective of the communal human condition, sometimes directly autobiographical.

I approach each new painting with a firm idea or concept in mind. Various scenarios run through my mind as I work, concerning the psychological, emotional or political implications of the objects or persons represented. I try to spontaneously work out a background history for the depicted scene. But I try to keep the overt meaning hidden, so that the viewers are left with the title or their own intuitions as their only clues.


I hope that the title points out the general direction for the viewer in my painting "Lost Highway." My canvas depicts the old New York West-Side Highway (or what remains of it) in an extreme state of decay. Destructive rust scales the rotting embankments and the road signs have long fallen from their supports, leaving fragile, skeletal remains as testimony to the many years of political neglect to a once proud and elegant structure.



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From left to right: The Waiting Room (60X72), The Sales Pitch (40X60), "The Aftermath" 60X72

America was locked in a fit of self-recrimination in the late 80ís and early 90ís when I began my sequential series, "The Nightmare, a group of large paintings subtitled "The Waiting Room," "The Sales Pitch" and "The Aftermath." The economy was stagnant at the time, and the media was filled with economic gurus touting the end of the American industrial machine, technological collapse and ruin.

The businessman depicted in the Nightmare series shares of that same fear and desperation on a more personal level. I tried to paint an individual caught up in an endless cycle, fighting to succeed and supersede previous achievements.

 "The Waiting Room" shows the man tensely seated in a waiting room, his jaw and fist clinched, nervously clutching his briefcase. A  jagged cast-shadow representing his anxiety looms behind him, and on the table before him sits a copy of "Newsweek," its cover depicting the cataclysmic shuttle explosion, perhaps a reflection of his inner foreboding.

The man stands isolated , behind a table as he addresses his clients in "The Sales Pitch." His audience is busy at their work, only their hands are visible, as they shuffle papers, almost unaware of his presence. The businessman has his papers spilled out in front of him, and he is gesturing wildly, trying too hard to make a point or sell his idea.

The final image, "The Aftermath," shows the man back in the waiting room, poised to leave. I wanted this painting to have an ominous feeling. The door is firmly shut behind him, and a gloomy, hunched over cast-shadow looms behind him. But regardless of whether he was successful with the sales pitch, he now faces into the darkness and girds himself for an relentless repeat of the nightmare.


On some occasions I do attempt to paint a specific portrait, trying to get a close likeness and psychological rendering of the subject. With the pastel painting of my father, "The Italian Man," My goal was to depict a man possessed with quiet pride and dignity. He had a very difficult youth, growing up in Italy before W.W.II. He was regularly persecuted by other kids because he was born in the U.S. and because he would not join Mussolini's Fascist youth squad. Finally, the government tried to arrest him, and it was only through great resolve and hard work that he surreptitiously found his way to the U.S. embassy, escaped the country and made his way to America.

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"The Italian Man," Pastel, 30X40

Even though she was born in the U.S., My mother also faced an extremely difficult life. Growing up through the depression and raising a large family, she has persevered through much, and she has continued to face life with incredible strength and honesty. With my painting "Resolve," I have attempted to portray some of the tenacity and determination that I perceive in her face. I see these qualities of strength specifically in the faces of my mother and father, but I hope that these two paintings also read as an universal, conceptual, representation of parental courage and vigor.

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"Resolve," Oil


Although I rarely attempt such overt portraiture, I feel there will always be an element of biography of the model or autobiography of the artist, when one works from life. There is an unconscious, emotional dialogue that often occurs between intimates when they stare at each other for hours, and I try to convey that in my images. I want to get this subliminal quality into my work, whether Iím painting my friends or family as actors or as themselves.

Indeed, I feel that my entire painting process has a collaborative element from the choice of the model, to the chance encounter of the painting by the viewer. Thatís why Iím usually reluctant to annotate my paintings more than offering a title. Once told to look to the title for meaning beyond the superficial reality of the image, I hope that the viewer will find the political, emotional or the psychological intent of the painting without a detailed, written scenario.

I try to avoid a didactic approach, especially in my more psychological canvases like "The Nightmare Triptych," hoping that the viewers will be forced to put something of their own imaginations into the work. I would like the viewers to intuit along with me, search within themselves for the meanings behind the analogies, and imagine the emotions depicted as feelings experienced within themselves on an immediate level rather than on an intellectualized, guided level.

The above was excerpted, updated and expanded from an article written for my retrospective at The Westmont College, Reynolds Art Gallery in 1991. Entire Contents Copyrighted 1999 by Dan Gheno.

Gheno teaches at The Art Students League of New York ,
215 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019