Upon returning from spring break, the more observant members of the Wesleyan community may have noticed that Pi Café has undergone some changes; specifically, the addition of a series of paintings hung above the individual chairs on the side opposite the windows. The works are slightly sculptural paintings, rendered predominantly in deep earth tones that echo the room’s principal color schemes, and are almost completely abstract.
No, the owners of Pi didn’t recently score big at a contemporary art auction. In fact, the pieces were painted by the café’s manager, Gary Kriksciun, who also manages Weshop. One can often find him socializing with the baristas at Pi, or sitting at his desk in the back of Weshop. But in his life outside the management business, Kriksciun is a painter (although he says he feels like a sculptor), and has been hanging his works in Pi on and off for the past five years.
Although he’s appreciated art his entire life, Kriksciun has never had any formal artistic training. He draws inspiration from a wealth of knowledge, presumably obtained through research on his own time, on modern art and a passion for specific artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, and Gerhard Richter. But his primary inspiration comes from the action or fantasy movies that he watches while he paints.
“I pretty much almost always watch the same movies over and over again,” Kriksciun said. “Either ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ this movie called ‘Two-Lane Blacktop,’ ‘Repo Man’….. A lot of those movies are really stark and visually stunning to me.”
What’s interesting, however, is that none of Kriksciun’s work actually looks like the more vibrant and colorful inspirations he lists.
“I guess I paint more emotionally,” he explained. “So, inspiration for me in my painting isn’t necessarily going to come from other painters.”
Kriksciun’s painting hobby began when he was living on Main Street, about a year after leaving the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where he was surrounded by creative people who, as he recalls it, spent most of their time blowing glass for bongs.
“One day I just decided I was gonna start painting, and I went and I bought a big piece of canvas and I nailed it to the wall and I just started painting,” he said. “And I still have it. I did this really awful cityscape. It was just horrendous.”
But Kriksciun has come a long way from that first day, working meticulously to hone his own style and find a technique that he feels both comfortable with and excited about. He ended up adapting a collage-like style, ripping up canvases and pasting the bits and pieces onto other stretched canvases, resulting in textured, heavily layered pieces that hover somewhere between painting and relief. Some of them are even old paintings he didn’t like and tore up; others have been layered on more deliberately. Kriksciun implements joint compound, a substance most commonly used in wall plastering, to evoke this dimensionality, saying that behind each painting he does, there are actually about four or five paintings piled on top of one another. He started practicing this technique about seven years ago and now finds himself unable to return to a two-dimensional medium.
“I just can’t,” he shrugged. “I feel empty. I feel unsatisfied.”
This artistic and emotional understanding plays a large role in how Kriksciun approaches his work. Often, he has trouble explaining his decisions, simply summarizing that it was what he liked or what he was drawn to. Part of this tendency might come from the fact that he has no interest in formal training, replacing this system with gut feeling. It might also stem from the fact that he has a career aside from painting, and his motivation to create art is purely personal.
“There’s a quote about how you can’t will yourself to do it, it has to be in you,” Kriksciun explained. “And I know that that is true for myself. I’ve never forced myself to paint. I just have to. And I just do it. Obviously not for the fame or the money, although that would be nice.” He chuckles.
Kriksciun, however, is anything but a stranger to the art world. He balances his rejection of formal education with a vested interest in art and a wide breadth of exposure to movies, books, and other forms of information about the art world. This fascination makes itself felt in various artistic threads that he picks up on in his paintings, such as a grid structure, the presence of text, large-scale works (which can’t be displayed at Pi due to their size), and, of course, collage.
The modern art world also influences his work in less specific ways, predominantly in that he tries to avoid overtly negative images or references. He explains that one piece of text in a painting comes from a conceptual work by Yoko Ono called “Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting).” The work consists of a ladder that viewers must climb in order to see, with the aid of a magnifying glass, a very small canvas hanging from the ceiling with the word “yes” on it. The word itself appears in Gary’s painting, and he also says that he has applied it as a sort of mantra throughout his entire body of work.
“Ever since I heard about that work, I’ve just never wanted to put anything specifically negative into my pieces,” he said. “I can allude to things, like if it’s emotional and you’re alluding to pain or something like that. But something so direct as yes or no…I just refuse to use no.”
Coupled with this aversion to negativity is an attraction to chaos that influences much of Kriksciun’s collection. His works exude a thrown-together quality that he hopes makes them seem spontaneously compiled.
“A lot of what I try to get with my paintings is something that looks like an accident but is not,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can really recreate chaos. If you go into, say, New York City, and you look at a wall that’s been graffitied and had flyers all over it, and it’s 10 years of unmaintained wall, I know that an artist could look at that and paint that. But I’m trying to make that. I’m not trying to actually recreate it.”
And much like the disparate parts of a New York City wall would each come with their own backgrounds, Gary has assembled his paintings in such a way that each little aspect comes with a story, an anecdote behind its inclusion. In the only instance of figuration that’s currently displayed, there’s an outline of a man in a suit holding up a fist, which is actually a photo of Gary himself that he printed and cut out, one he includes in many of his works. There’s a muted blue-green hue in a few of his paintings that’s become his favorite, but he can’t figure out how to mix it on the palette; he’s only ever achieved the right combination by blending the paint directly on the canvas. Kriksciun also traces his discovery of layering of small torn squares of canvas to around the first time he met with a curator at the Chester Gallery in Connecticut, who used to do Sol LeWitt’s framing and ended up hanging a collection of Gary’s works a few years later.
“When I paint, it’s one of the only moments that I can achieve the now,” Gary contemplated. “Where I completely forget everything.”
Gary’s masterpieces can still be admired while in line for a caffeine fix between classes, or linger for a while to take them in. Meanwhile, here’s a preview of the ones currently displayed, as well as a couple he’s keeping in the wings at home.