Brian Gahagan, American Artistic Visionary (2002)

(see end of essay for Wayne State University exhibition information)



 "The subject matter of my paintings remains what it always has been. The mystical, the romantic, the fairy-tale, the elusive spiritual link in the existence of man. This is the subject matter of my paintings, but does not explain why I paint them. I paint these paintings simply because I am a painter." Brian Gahagan


 Brian Gahagan was an artistic genius, as he was a man in conflict with himself in ways that will probably never be fully understood. This unknown conflict, as well as his sheer brilliance of mind and creativity, play their roles in the drama that was his life and art, cut short in 1998 at the age of 41. While we will never know what another twenty or forty years of life may have produced, artistically speaking, there exists a significant body of paintings that tell the extraordinarily high level of his achievement.


 Brian Gahagan was a completely original, visionary painter who yet based his art on his observation of, and feeling for, the world around him. Whether or not Gahagan knew of Paul Gauguin's advice to "dream" before nature when preparing to paint, not copy it slavishly, he clearly acted upon it in response to his own inner artistic drive. Far from copying nature, Gahagan's sharp eye was tempered by the heart of a dreamer. He combined the truth of nature with his own.


 Before turning wholly to painting, he was as unusually gifted and creative in computer technology and programming (hired by major European firms as a consultant) as he was in art. What would appear to be polar opposite views of the world, requiring completely different functions of brain, mind and heart, were seemingly compatible and equally realized in Brian Gahagan.


 His oil and gouache paintings of people, family, friends, architecture and landscape are uniquely personal in style and interpretation, and fall into two basic periods...those painted in Venice, Italy and, after his departure from the city of canals, San Diego, California and Phoenix, Arizona.


 The paintings of Venice generally exhibit a dark, rich palette, and while they have a luminosity of their own, nevertheless differ from the later American works. These evolve through a magical, colorful, impressionist-touched realism interlaced with fantasy, arriving at a strikingly intense, final orange and yellow radiance. His Venetian palazzos, while accurate depictions of existing buildings and locales, are as far as they can be from status quo reality. In keeping with his strong feelings and visionary nature, Gahagan's buildings loom, twist and swell, crowd and press against one another as if possessed by contradictory goals and strong inner pressures. Rarely does this painted architecture have the stable vertical and horizontal lines that hold buildings upright in actual cities.


 Gahagan's buildings are alive, not only artistically, but emotionally, psychologically and symbolically, the way those of Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper are alive, though the styles of the three artists differ. Gahagan and Van Gogh are closer to each other, in terms of architectural forms that are unusually animated and organic, than to Hopper's more geometric realism.


 But for all three artists, buildings have psychological and emotional resonance, "personalities" and a presence more like living beings than dry constructions of wood, mortar, glass and stone. Gahagan painted a striking picture of Antonio Gaudi's buildings in Guell Park, during a visit to Barcelona, Spain, as well as studies of that architect's famous Casa Mila. Nothing could be closer in spirit to Gahagan's vision of the world -- unless it is the contemporary architecture of Frank Gehry -- than these sinuously curving, convention-shattering, Art Nouveau architectural fantasies that abhor the restrictions and proprieties of the straight line and right angle. Conscious and unconscious pressures urge both the artist and architects to distort and defy the seeming limitations of reality. Gahagan's fantasy finds an equivalent in Gaudi; the forces that haunt Gahagan reside in Gehry's buildings.


 When Brian Gahagan arrived in Phoenix to be near his family, he was fascinated by, and developed a real feeling for, Arizona desert trees and plants, as if their unique and varied forms, energy and growth somehow echoed his own abundant creativity and uniqueness as a person and artist. He painted them with the same flair, intense, animated expressiveness and clear perception of shape and form as the buildings in Venice.


 In the beginning, Gahagan's paintings of the desert Southwest were painted with colors closer to the Venetian works...umbers, ochres, tans, grey blues, olive greens and alizarins. Gradually absorbing the invincible force of desert light, the artist's paintings ultimately became revelations of radiance as much as unusually original and accurate depictions of neighborhoods, palm trees, saguaros, bougainvillea, transcendent, intimate gardens, pets and loved ones. They present an incredibly beautiful range of lustrous, glowing colors...golds, oranges, pinks, reds, yellows, turquoise blues, lavenders, violets, greens.


 This amazing light, the result of desert living, was also the expression of the artist's inner growth and experience. There was something bright and shining in Gahagan himself that the desert allowed and encouraged him to express, that synchronized with his visionary gift. The rainbow colors of his Arizona work, culminating in form-dissolving, predominantly orange and yellow paintings, are as much a hymn to beauty and the ecstasy of living, as they are, in an opposite sense, the colors of autumn, one final burst of life and color -- one final cry -- before the winter comes.


 Like many artists, Gahagan had mixed feelings about selling his work. He may have been shy about approaching galleries, doubtful whether his work was good enough to exhibit, or, perhaps so deeply involved in the creative process and his other-worldly vision that the shifting of mental and emotional gears necessary to move to a mercantile view of life was simply too radical to deal with.


 As a result, Gahagan no doubt suffered from the creative loneliness that artists of originality experience because of their unusual insights. It is the continuing tragedy, played out far too often in the history of art and society, that there simply are not enough original minds inside and out of the arts to appreciate and understand what such unique artists are trying to tell us. As pre-eminently important as the creation of art is for any artist, it is nearly as important, once the work is done, to be able to share it with others, to communicate through one's art.


 If only one of Brian Gahagan's paintings could be discussed, it probably should be "Irish Wedding". It has been interpreted as a humorous painting because the groom lies in an apparent drunken stupor at the altar. In all likelihood, it is anything but humorous. Of all the artist's paintings, this seems the one that most directly expresses and reveals the artist's unknown inner dynamic, the duality that otherwise manifests itself in his use of light and dark, and his dual capacities as a genius of computers and art.


 The personal interaction in the painting is, strangely, between the bride and priest, not bride and groom. The bride (white/light) is rapt in her attention to the priest, while the groom (black/dark) is ignored, lying in his tuxedo, sprawled on the floor at their feet. This is a tragic work, painted in the darker colors of Venice, an expression of deep pathos. Gahagan clearly must have identified himself with the fallen groom. The split we witness of standing bride and prostrate groom suggests some break within the artist himself between whatever forces of consciousness and unconsciousness were at war.


 Whether we speculate that we are witnessing, in this painting, an actual frustration of Gahagan's hopes for marriage; a symbolic visual statement speaking of the split between the male and female sides of the artist's personality; or some other dichotomy, the painting expresses just the opposite of the deepest symbolic meaning of marriage, that of coming together, wholeness, the union of opposites, differences and contradictions, whether in the psyche of an individual or in the universe itself.


 "Irish Wedding" seems a painting of emotional wretchedness representing an inability to overcome obstacles and conflicts necessary to attaining the fundamental wholeness that is a foundational purpose and meaning of life. Hovering cupids clasp their hands over ears, eyes and mouths in the classic admonition to hear, see and speak no evil, as if Gahagan wants to express his pain, and perhaps deny it in the same breath.


 While darkness and light -- emotional as well as aesthetic -- were perhaps the ultimate dichotomy in Brian Gahagan's too-short life as a man and artist, he was clearly a creative genius who brought forth an inspired art of great individuality, making a substantial contribution to the history of art in our time.



 Exhibition of the paintings of Brian Gahagan:

Wayne State University

June 28 - July 26, 2002

Community Arts Gallery

150 Community Arts Building

(Cass between Kirby and Palmer)

Detroit, Michigan 48202




Patricia Gahagan Lorenz

13231 Stardust Boulevard

Sun City West, AZ 85375





Copyright by Don Gray



Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms