As an illustration of what kind of artist he wants to be, Denis Gaston tells a story about visiting a popular exhibition of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, in 2004. Gaston recalls being suitably impressed by the exuberant glass, but it paled for him in comparison with a different sight: the museum’s array of pre-Columbian objects from South America, a highlight of its collections, including robust statuettes of figures.
“They were just jumping out at me,” Gaston says. “I stayed all day. Those are the images I remember, not the Chihuly. They have such power and energy. That is what I try to strive for in my work.”
The story reflects Gaston’s interest — somewhat unusual among contemporary artists, who tend to adopt more conceptual approaches — in otherworldly visions and mythic subjects. Through May 31, Five Deuces Galleria, a six-month old exhibition space in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District, hosts 16 of his latest paintings, drawings and mixed media works made between 2008 and 2014. They feature figures invented by Gaston — each, he says, is a self-portrait in some sense — rendered in the distinctive combination of bold figure drawing and rich surface texture that he has developed since leaving a graphic design career in 1990 to practice making art full-time in Pinellas County.
A good example of all that can go right when Gaston has pen and paintbrush in hand is “The Selection Committee.” The 10-foot-tall canvas, un-stretched and hanging on the gallery wall like a tapestry, depicts a hovering, faceless and limbless figure poised to choose between three heads laid out on a bench in front of him. Each face, one with brown eyes, one with blue and one with green, seems to suggest a different fate; two miniature men, seated on the shoulders of the larger figure, offer conflicting advice. Gaston organizes these painted elements in a sky-blue metaphysical space dotted with quivering globes of pen-and-ink doodles — hand-drawn microcosms of insects, animals, spaceships, furniture and other symbols.
The dreamlike tableau invites reflection on our own inner worlds as spaces that are sometimes amusing, sometimes enigmatic and always abuzz with images and associations.
Gaston’s other mysterious creatures include “Tar Baby,” a lumpy mass of goo with a Cheshire cat grin who sits atop a sea littered with limp bodied creatures. (Looking to current events for a change, Gaston made the painting after the 2010 BP oil spill.) “The Oracle” sports eight tentacle-like arms, a businessman’s trouser-clad legs and necktie, and a round torso between a robot and a bug. “The Juggler (Le Jongleur)” wears a crown above his angular, expressionless face.
In bringing the figures into being in his paintings, Gaston splits the difference between the confidence of a practiced visual designer and the deskilled energy of a folk artist. His style is reminiscent of 20th century artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Georges Rouault, who knew well how to paint by academic standards but were concerned to unearth something wilder and closer to the raw root of consciousness. To that end, Gaston channels his abstract figures, often composing paintings through improvisation, and puts the surfaces of his paintings through a regimen of scratching and distressing until they resemble artifacts that have arrived on Earth via transit from some other, unknown place.
“I’ve found that there are images coming through me, and I try to get out of the way,” Gaston says.
Gaston’s show offers the kind of focused look at an artist’s work that Five Deuces Galleria curator Lance Rodgers likes to facilitate. Rodgers formerly curated the galleries at Salt Creek Artworks, an artist studio complex and alternative space that shut down in 2012, and was known for hosting solo exhibitions of local artists such as Kim Radatz, Kirk Ke Wang and Rocky Bridges. After spending a year in a makeshift studio at St. Petersburg Opera Company, Rodgers landed at 222 22nd St. S., where he started Five Deuces. (The name nods to the five two’s in the gallery’s street address and 22nd Street South’s historic nickname, “the Deuces.”) The approximately 1,200-square-foot space, with white walls and new LED lighting, is a welcome addition to St. Petersburg’s gallery scene.
The larger complex houses studios for more than 20 artists — which are leased out by the building’s owner, not Rodgers — amid cool architectural details like recycled sewer pipes and wooden beams, which hem in small courtyards and walkways. The popular 3 Daughters Brewing is also a tenant.
The arrangement feels like a comeback, but Rodgers hasn’t stopped knocking on wood.
“If this folds, I’m going directly into my garage and then I’ll do guerrilla spaces or something,” Rodgers says.
Denis Gaston: New Works runs through May 31 at Five Deuces Galleria , 222 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg, 727-906-1223, facebook.com/five2222.