Crowd Pleaser

Tube Forms

Tube Forms

The little boy in the foreground is diving into the waves, undisturbed by the throngs on beach around him. The figures in the background are so indistinct, they could be people or just reflections of light on water. Reminiscent of Seurat’s pointillist studies on 19th-century Parisian life (think Sunday in the Park), Asheville painter Ursula Gullow’s Heat Forms I captures the color and motion of a 20th-century summer day at the beach, at once familiar, intimate, and detached. The idea of the crowd or “swarm” of people as she calls it has been a theme in Gullow’s work since she started painting 12 years ago, and her most recent series of work showcases her talent for combining the abstract and the representational, accessibility with visual intrigue.

Skaters circling an ice rink, people floating lazily down a river in inner tubes: the figures in Gullows’ paintings are colorful, creating patterns of movement that draw in the viewer. “Ursula’s work is very inviting because she creates such an interesting relationship between the foreground and the background in her paintings,” says Carol Bonds, who represents Gullow’s work at Asheville’s Haen Gallery. “The further back into the distance the viewer looks, the more abstract the painting becomes. This contrast creates an incredible sense of perspective and depth.”

That effect is something Gullow arrived at progressively throughout her 12-year career as a painter. A Sociology major in college, Gullow never expected to become an artist. After graduating from school in her native New York (she grew up on a dairy farm in the Catskills), she moved to Seattle and fell into experimenting with a range of media from glass to ceramics. Having painted since she was a child, she had the skills, but felt always at a loss for subject matter. “I didn’t really know what to paint.”

Seeking computer skills, Gullow studied graphic design in Seattle, but soon found herself gravitating toward illustration. Painting was calling. When she discovered the work of self-taught artist Henry Darger, something clicked. “Until then,” says Gullow, “I didn’t know you could use photos as reference. All of a sudden, the world opened up.”

Gullow started painting and showing her work in 2002, and in 2003 moved to Asheville. From her early interest in crowds, she moved into more narrative painting, juxtaposing seemingly unrelated images together in her paintings, such as those in her American Apocolypse (2008): bison grazing in a field in front of a volcano, flocks of birds flying over their heads and radio towers sending out visible signals. While viewers were drawn to the images, it was always the negative space between them that was more compelling to Gullow.

Perhaps as a result of teaching painting at AB Tech for the past three years, she says she now finds herself less concerned with subject matter and more focused on materials and process. “The process used in a painting can convey a message, too,” she says. That emphasis has lead to looser, more abstract paintings. “My work is becoming more and more gestural,” she says.

In her Kin show last year at PUSH gallery, Gullow built up layers of texture around her subjects (family members as they were in the 1970s), creating a sense of ambiguity: is this really how they were or have they been altered by time and memory? “That negative space holds history,” says Gullow.

For last year’s {Re}Happening — an experimental/experiential art event co-hosted annually by Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center and the Media Arts Project (Gullow is on the board) — Gullow produced an interactive piece called Shooting Gallery, inviting participants to shoot paint-filled toy guns at her canvases, building up layers. Gullow didn’t have anything invested in the outcome: it was an opportunity to see where the process would lead, to let the materials dictate the result.

In her scenes of New York’s Grand Central Station (created from photos she took there), the walls and windows of the iconic building are defined, but the dome ceiling and figures circulating under it are only suggestive. It’s easy to get swept up in the motion of the crowd and that moment in time that Gullow captures. Her fluid style puts the viewer not in the thick of the action, but just at the edge, leaving the options open: to dive in, or stay detached beyond the madding crowd.

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