By Cory Walsh, of the Missoulian:
Painter Ric Gendron’s focused lifestyle probably accounts for large body of paintings he’s created in his distinctive, brightly colored style. And it might also explain why he’s “hidden from the mainstream,” as it’s put in a new midcareer survey.
“My life is simple. Every day I paint, play my guitar and take care of my grandkids. That’s all I do,” the Spokane resident tells independent curator Ben Mitchell in “Rattlebone,” both a hardcover volume of his work and a traveling exhibition set to open Friday in Missoula.
“This is painting from his heart,” Mitchell said of the 40-some works dating back to the late ’80s going up at the Missoula Art Museum. During more than 50 trips to Gendron’s small, many-hued garage studio, he said the painter was always sitting at the easel, painting and listening to music. “He gets up in the morning and paints – and he paints all day long.”
Gendron, in his late 50s, began supporting himself solely by painting in his early 30s, and according to Mitchell’s writing, he’s never supplemented that income by teaching, or gaining representatives or commissions in major cities.
His figurative works have absorbed the influence of Fauvist color, the loose graffiti of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon’s mysterious, contorted figures. However, there also are echoes of Indian artists Fritz Scholder and Rick Barto, and his own experiences as a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville, a Salish tribe in Washington.
While his work is well-known in Spokane and the Sante Fe Indian Markets in New Mexico, this exhibition will bring his work to its largest audience yet. “By far in his career, this is the largest showing of his work, and more people will come to know it,” Mitchell said.
After Gendron and Mitchell’s project initially faltered in eastern Washington, the Missoula Art Museum picked it up. “We’ve always believed in Ric’s work as well,” said Stephen Glueckert, MAM curator, “and have respect for Ben’s skills and abilities and insight as well. It was a real natural fit for us.”
It’s also the first hardcover publication MAM has produced in recent memory, Glueckert said. The 128-page volume features full-color plates, historical photos from Gendron and a monograph written by Mitchell that places the painter’s work in context with his background and influences.
Mitchell broke down the appeal of Gendron’s paintings as the exhibit was going up on the walls. “I find his work very approachable because it’s figurative,” he said.
And those figures often are rendered in jolts of unnatural, caffienated hues. “There’s just a simple joy in the color,” that’s impossible not to experience, he said.
Gendron tackles subjects familiar to the Northwest in his own distinctive colors, style and from his own perspective. As an example, Mitchell pointed to “The Way Home,” an acrylic on canvas that features a group of Indians traveling through a mountain pasture – elements for a typical romanticized Western scene.
“You have the Indians on the horses and they have regalia, but they have umbrellas and sunglasses on, and the colors are not the Rocky Mountain colors,” he said of the bright orange field and purple mountains. “It’s just whole cloth out of his head.”
The selections include works from Gendron that people who are familiar with his work might be seeing for the first time and that are stylistically distinct from previous efforts, showing “a depth and a hardness about human identity,” said Mitchell.
“Little Big Man,” for example, shows a dark-skinned figure standing before a burning magenta background. The only features on his face are a row of garish teeth and a red horizontal brush stroke where the eyes should be.
“There’s a lot of expressiveness, a lot of spontaneity. He paints with his fingers” and sometimes the heel of his palm, Mitchell said.
Gendron tells Mitchell he learned from his inspirations “to not be afraid of offending the viewer with grotesque images, Fauvist color, or making social statements.”
First Friday attendees can meet Gendron at the MAM’s opening. There will be an artist’s reception and gallery talk with Gendron and Mitchell at 7 p.m., timed to allow fans to see the Festival of the Dead parade. Before and after the talk, there will be drumming from Jason Heavy Runner.
On Saturday at noon, Gendron will give a tour of the collection. Those interested can attend a brunch from 10 a.m. to noon by RSVP’ing in advance.
After the exhibit completes its run in Missoula on March 31, it will begin a three-year journey to five different venues: the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton, Ore.; the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Wash; the Museum of Contemporary Indian Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.; and the Jundt Art Museum in Spokane.
Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.