A strong influence from the old masters

Robert Grilley Retrospective at the UW Madison Memorial Union Gallery

by Doug E. L. Haynes

Detail of In the Blue Chair, 1990-2005, Oil on Canvas, 69" x 45"
Knowing that Robert Grilley would be having a retrospective at the Memorial Union in June, I set up an appointment with him to visit his studio and view his work. A studio visit always gives a deeper look into the life of an artist because it is cluttered with the artifacts and odds and ends of the creative process that are unique to each artist, but Grilley’s studio is surprisingly uncluttered. The neatly ordered room seems to reflect the tightness of execution that characterizes his large canvases. Grilley’s spacious and well lit studio is filled with paintings and photos of his family members, especially his youngest daughter Juneko, who appears in numerous works. The paintings of Juneko depict her at various ages in a variety of costumes so that after a brief afternoon I felt as if I had experienced the childhood, youth and young adulthood of a girl, just by viewing a few thoughtfully painted works. Many of the works are large and some are life-size.
Grilley admits to a strong influence by the old masters. His work shows a strong understanding of human anatomy, but the works go beyond the study of muscle and bone on an anonymous model. The personal connection he has to his model makes each work hold a fascinating psychology. Juneko in various paintings holds our attention with a compelling gaze.
Even more fascinating is the story related by the artist on how Juneko took an active role as model and even painted this or that part of the canvas. Another interesting story is how after bringing the works to completion at one point in time, the artist choose to paint out and re craft the work over the course of years till the work met his satisfaction. I asked Grilley why he did not simply start over with a fresh canvas. His response was that he did not want to leave behind a flawed work so he choose to prefect the one he had rather than to create another one.
It was a pleasure to share the room with someone who had been a part of the Wisconsin Art scene for so long. At 84 years of age Grilley is old enough to remember folks like James Watrous and John Stueart Curry. Although Grilley did not have many kind works for Curry. If I recall correctly, the words used were “bastard and cheapskate”. But frankly it is refreshing to hear unflattering accounts of those on pedestals, especially from those with firsthand knowledge. Grilley was also not shy to express criticism of the current UW faculty for drifting away from rigorous teaching. Grilley did have words of praise for his teachers Della Wilson, Roland Stebbins and Bill McCloy as well as his student Dan O’Neil.

Be sure to catch Grilley’s exhibition at the Wisconsin Union Galleries in Madison. The show runs from June 10th to July 17th. Reception and artist’s talk will be on the evening of Friday June 10th.

Detail of In the Blue Chair, 1990-2005, Oil on Canvas, 69" x 45" Detail of Double Portrait of Ei in Kimonos, Oil on Canvas
Records 1 to 2 of 2  |