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On Art and Sport with Ethan Gill

Drawing from his experience as a college football player, Ethan Gill, approaches painting actively with honest expressive marks. He received his BFA from Northern Illinois University and is a current MFA candidate at SAIC. My fascination with his paintings began with a show entitled, “My Idea of Fun.” A couple of weeks afterwards, I got the opportunity to interview him for the site. We spoke about when his love for painting began, what it means to be a Chicago artist, and the connection between art and sports.

Danielle Jackson [DJ]: I understand that you are an athlete (a former football player). How does that experience reveal itself in your artistic process? How do you see them relating to one another?

 Ethan Gill [EG]: Art and sport are similar in a lot of ways. Just as I did as a football player, the more I practice my craft as a painter, I develop muscle memory and a physical understanding of material.  As athletes master the movements of their sport, momentary improvisations and adjustments become automatic.  I think painters have this same skill.  I feel like it is important to make honest marks.  I like to think sometimes you could count the number of times I touched the surface because I apply paint very directly with a knife or by piping out of a bag.  I want the result of my process to retain the activity of its production.

Art and sport demand a certain amount of confidence to be successful.  There is never a more obvious measure of confidence than when one attempts painting.  Painting is like performing an open field tackle, without supreme confidence you are liable to be bowled over or miss completely.  This could be why some athletes and artists develop inflated egos.

Art and sport, at least in the beginning, are pure activities of fun and pleasure.  I was attracted to both because of the challenges they pose.  I enjoy seeing the clear results of my practice and having those results available for public judgment.

I sometimes think about my practice as an exercise of kin-aesthetics.  As a football player, I needed to pay close attention to my own form in the position of competing with and against other forms on the field.  As a painter, I pay close attention to the relationships of my material as well as how my work relates to other artists.


Ethan Gill. "Italian Pie Blocked by Gumby Limbs." Image Courtesy of Ethan Gill

DJ: You mentioned that you like to think of your practice “as an exercise in kin-aesthetics.” How so? Can you expand on that a little?

EG: I think of kin-aesthetics as understanding or learning through motion and activity.  Painting is a process of making connections between ideas and images through activity.  I use the term “kin-aesthetics” as a word play to describe how through activity I assign visual “aesthetics” to ideas, while also claiming a group of other artists and their work as my “kin”.  I think it is important for an artist to place themselves both in the history of art and within visual discussions amongst their contemporaries.

I have claimed my kin in the past by referencing a visual strategy or by making a painting, I believed would oppose another artist’s philosophy.  These are mostly subtle things I do to remain an active viewer.  Recently, I have been more direct and actually painted portraits of other artists.  I believe a painting has limitless potential as to what it can be “about”.  It can be a commentary on ethics in sport, a shout out to another artist, an autobiographical excerpt, and an aesthetic experience all at the same time.

DJ: I’m curious to know what artists do you consider “kin” and why? What artists have influenced you a great deal in terms of approach, ideas, etc?

EG: I am definitely giving myself away as a soon to be graduate student.  A lot of my concentration right now is centered on defining what painting is and where I fit in the big picture.

Art and painting in particular have a history as long and diverse as mankind itself.  I like that I am participating in something that helps define what it is to be human.  I like to place myself in a kind of art family tree, in that, I am related to other artists and traditions in varying degrees.  I like to think Francisco Goya, Philip Guston, Edouard Manet, Francis Bacon, Arturo Herrera, Larry Rivers, Paul McCarthy, and Lucian Freud are all somewhere in my tree.

I am a Chicago based artist—that means more to me than location.  The Imagists are an important influence of mine, and because they are perhaps not as well documented as other “movements” I try to take ownership over the trajectory of that work and install myself as the beneficiary.  This fall, I will be an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  The opportunity to learn from someone like Jim Lutes is a dream come true for me.  Artists like Richard Hull, Jose Lerma, Tyson Reeder, Scott Reeder, Adam Scott, and Jim Nutt have already impacted my work and I am happy that I will have the opportunity to work with them and the other SAIC faculty over the next couple of years.

Art is a social experience.  Conversations with friends at galleries or bars continually develop my feelings about art and inform my work.  People associated with my alma mater, Northern Illinois University, have been generous with their knowledge and time and have made a big impact on my work, as well as my relationship to art in Chicago.  Geoffrey Smith, Nina Rizzo, Mike Rea, Frank Trankina, Ryan Christian, Marcie Oakes, Steve Ruiz, Ben Stone, Matt Irie, Trew Schriefer, and Dominic and Sara (ebersmoore gallery) are some of these people.  I believe the Chicago art community has to be the best in the world because of the talent, generosity, and inclusiveness of the artists.

Ethan Gill. "Too Husky for Sandusky (Ben Stone)," 2012. Image Courtesy of Ethan Gill

DJ: You mention a lot of interesting things from the Imagists to the generosity of Chicago artists (all of which have become frequent discussion topics in my interviews). I’m particularly interested in the notion that art is a social practice. I totally agree. I’m wondering how much that idea played into your Too Husky for Sandusky series?

EG: The series started from a conversation at a bar.  It was just after the New Year and I made the claim that I was going to take every painting suggestion in 2012, while drinking, seriously.  To give you a preface, for a long time I was working with collage.  I bought a new batch of paint and the first thing I did was make this strange self portrait wearing a Christmas sweater with the nipples cut out.  I called it “Self Portrait Wearing Christmas Sweater with A Clockwork Orange Nipples”.  This was also around the time that I was filling out applications for grad school and was often bothering Geoffrey Smith and Mike Rea for advice.  They stopped by and saw the portrait and Geoffrey casually suggested that I make one of them as well.

I also have to mention that those guys were working on a project called Sharks, Dicks, and Drugs.  Over the course of three years they drank at Gold Star Bar and made perverted dumb shark drawings with sharpies on printer paper.  I made some drawings with them for a couple of sessions, and I am proud to say one of my drawings could win the prize for most depraved.  The spirit of the project was so refreshing and I know that it made a big impact on the Too Husky for Sandusky series.

After I finished the Geoffrey and Mike Portrait, I painted one a day for a few days.  It was exciting to have a series and to watch my studio fill up with the strange gazes of blank faced mostly bearded men and their nipples.  To reference what I said before, I was taking all suggestions given in 2012, while drinking, seriously; because I have faith in painting as a process of discovery and revelation.  I wanted to see what kind of work would develop from the dumbest source possible and I thought suggestions from drunken men—although they’re creative geniuses—would be perfect.  The title of the series and my realization of how complex they were, developed while painting them.

I wanted to capture the spirit of men in the locker room or at the bar.  Men that have a certain amount of comfort with each other show a kind of love in a backhanded way.  I respect and admire the men in my portraits.  I wanted the experience of viewing to be like at the end of a night of drinking too many shots where men have been continually upping the ante until it crescendos into something close to a fist fight or an uncomfortable, scratchy faced, tooth clicking, man on man smooch.

Ethan Gill. "The Dancing Horse." Image Courtesy of Ethan Gill

DJ:  [Laughter] I first heard of you during an interview I conducted with Mike Rea. He described you as a “real painter’s painter.” Your love, respect, and admiration for painting is so apparent. At what point did painting become truly significant to you?

EG: I was always a natural draftsman.  That skill was something that I believe held me back from really connecting to an image for a long time.  Maybe I was good at looking but not seeing if that makes sense.  I was pretty cocky because I could render an image pretty well, but I was never feeling the image until my junior year of undergrad.  That was a year of a lot of change in my life.  I had a spine injury and was forced to quit playing football.  I lost contact with most of my friends almost immediately because as a football team you do almost everything together and everyone has the same schedule.  Once I wasn’t a part of the schedule, I felt like I wasn’t really connected with them anymore.

Shortly after, I found out that one of my roommates had been stealing the rent and we were evicted.  Around the same time I was a witness to the Valentine’s Day shooting which really devastated my touch and understanding of reality.  This combination of things sent me reeling for a while.  I dropped all of my classes except for painting.  The circumstances forced an urgency and introspectiveness in my work.

I can think of one piece in particular that really changed my understanding of the power of painting.  I made these plaster copies of a clay self portrait bust.  I invited viewers to do whatever they wanted to them and they were subsequently destroyed.  I cobbled together a plaster structure from the pieces and painted it.  I felt a transformation inside myself as I transformed the bust.  It was about being in the position of losing an identity built around sport and finding a new potential in art.  Painting meant survival.

DJ: Wow, so painting became a way for you deal with those series of events and redefine yourself as well. Art is so powerful. It just touches people in different ways. Going back a little bit you mentioned that prior to the Too Husky for Sandusky you were working doing collage work. How long were you doing that?

EG: I was working with collage for two years. The collage work was an important learning experience for me.  I started it because I felt like I was too in love with my own mark making to create compelling images.  They taught me how to edit.  The collage process allowed me to maintain a state of open composition.  Being able to play and shift things around helped me learn how to make better or less expected decisions.


Ethan Gill. "Self Portrait as George Washington Asking the Men to Please Not Mention that He Hesitated Before Crossing," 2012. Image Courtesy of Ethan Gill

DJ: How much does humor and fun inform your practice? What do you hope the viewer can take from your work?

EG: I think comedy and art are very closely related.  It’s about concentrating on surprise and a sense of timing.  I can’t really describe what makes good art or what makes something funny but you know when you see it.  Laughter is such a powerful reaction.  It is closely related to crying in that it is an involuntary response.  If I were able to cause that in someone I would feel like I succeeded.

In the Too Husky for Sandusky series the humor is an attempt to cope with a traumatic subject.  I want my work to be available to viewers that are content with just having fun as well as satisfy someone willing to traverse to darker underlying themes.

 DJ: What can we expect from you in the future? Anything in the works (exhibits, paintings, etc)?

 EG: I’m working on a series of revised history paintings/ self portraits.  I am thinking about our need for heroes and villains and their mythologies as well as the mythologies of artists.  Artists have a different standard than someone like George Washington.  Artists don’t need to have a perfect moral record as long as they meet the expectation of performance.  I’m using my own image as a stand-in in order to examine performance anxiety in historically significant events as well as short comings of historical figures that perhaps we were never told.  I’m comparing historical mythologies to recent events. I’m exploring how modern technology and the ability to document events more thoroughly effects our capacity for romance.

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