The Paintings of Gary Bagnato–A Fusion of Old World and New World Artistry
by Cuzann Matessa Deihl
Gary Bagnato is a New-Age Gothic Van Gogh. That’s a mouthful, but it reflects the broad spectrum of his art. You have to see it for yourself. If you don’t have the opportunity to view it, let me give you a glimpse of it through my eyes.
Viewing some of his paintings puts you at the entrance of a feel-good, psychedelic church with medieval stained-glass windows, as seen in his “Blood of the Ancestors.” The roses, which in ancient times, symbolized a gift to us from the gods, have no thorns. To me, it’s like Catholicism without the guilt.
“Barbarian Nights” seems like a painting stolen from King Arthur’s castle wall, and “Mystical Paradise” is the painting a royal-court artist was commissioned to paint of his garden, with Arthur and Guinevere coming together toward the fountain as lovers would.
Whereas some artists paint conventional still-life or nature scenes, Bagnato amps the genre up to a whole new level.
“The Wheel Keeps Turning” makes you think of Thanksgiving in
a kaleidoscopic, New England Farm kind of way…”Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go,” that is, if Grandma were an old hippie with a tie-dyed T-shirt.
Further proof of Gary’s electric use of color is seen in the aptly-titled, stormy clash of nature and technology in “Electrical Suspension.” “Windy Refuge” is not your typical Maine lighthouse and boat scene, with its collision of a rainbow-hued horizon and midnight clouds. “Brandy [Wine} Falls” looks like a Cray°lahallucinatedl vision of this Ohio waterfall and sunset.
Gary’s “Mighty Saguaro” and “Squaws’ Peak,” where squaws would search for their warrior men returning from battle, takes me back to my Arizona desert trip, and the tropical “Amazon Creatures” takes me to a rainforest I’ve never visited. His post-winter bloom “Crocus Blast,” and the hummingbird-invaded “Esthers Irises” are shockingly pretty, yet peaceful enough to hang and gaze upon without harshing one’s mellow mood.
However, not all of his work gives you the warm fuzzies.
Mr. Bagnato oscillates between the world of calm, natural scenes, such as “Nature’s Flame” field of tulips, and cabin-neighbor moonlit owl of “Waiting for Night,” to the world of political-religious-social commentary.
“People Who Think They’re Gods” lampoons those that are bigger than all of us: dictators, cult leaders, faith healers. The bleeding heart of God in the sky drips blood into an earthly grave, while an ominous jester laughs at those of us who worship vanity.
“Creation or Destruction” depicts the approach of the Four Horsemen, with the hands of God giving life to a fetus on one side, yet toppling cities with nuclear weapons on the other. Do we value the ease of modern life more than God and the future of our children? So much destruction comes when we worship the industrial/military-driven complex.
In the classic depiction of good versus evil, “Light and Darkness,” God/Jesus, archangels and heavenly hosts are seen in the heavens above the ghosts, witches, and devil-worshippers that wallow with Satan in the graveyard below.
A blue-hued “Time” sets the moody tone of lost souls fighting to keep from slipping from the top of the hourglass through to the bottom like forgotten grains of sand in the history of time. Those at the bottom are trodden in despair, or trying to fight their way out.
“Warm Sanctuary,” a memorial to people who died in the Civil
War, is comforting yet haunting. Is it a weary spirit seeking refuge at sunset, or a haloed, winged angel on a mission?
“Abstract Study,” a depiction of part of a rusty metal can, looks like someone shot angry holes through it.
I could swear I see tortured faces stamped into the charcoal-tinted mud under the brilliant autumn leaves, walked-on but not appreciated, of his “Trampled Soul.”
His art, in general, has a lot of soul, whether dark or light-natured.
Gary does retain his sense of humor while making social statements. In “Groupie Love,” the rock star plays his favorite female fan like a finely-tuned guitar, literally. She smiles and submits willingly. Feminism can sometimes enable women to have the confidence to be used, if we want to be; a more meek fan would be too scared to approach her Rock God.
“Mr. Bojangles” seems sad yet sweet to me. A hobo tries to hail a modern train, which apparently has no visible human conductor and thus no sense of compassionate help in enabling his dream of escape and adventure, while clouds in the background resemble a locomotive from the days of old, a more friendly sight for him to behold.
So all in all, he’s eclectic. He’s not your typical Northeast Ohio artist by style, but maybe he is— by his personal history.
Growing up in Akron Ohio the son of a poor rubber worker, Gary Bagnato didn’t have much opportunity to be a part of the art world. However, he was drawn at an early age to create. He would get plastic models of cars and airplanes, put them together, then paint them. He’d do the “paint by the numbers” sets; using the remaining paint from those kits, he’d take his drawings of jousting knights, dinosaurs, cowboys and Indians, or pirates, and fill them with color, bringing them alive with action.
After his father passed away when he was eleven years old, things started getting tight for money around the house. Gary took a job as a paper boy and worked hard so he could get money for art supplies. The only escape he had was his art; every night after school, he would be at the dining room table drawing and painting.
It wasn’t until high school when his art teacher, who lived and practiced art in Greenwich. Village, New York, opened Gary’s eyes. She said that he might have a real talent for art. She suggested that he go to college or art school.
When Gary attended Kent State University from 1968 to 1970, it was a time of political and social change. Each art class seemed to be charged with a “dream”: the feeling that art and music could change the world, and possibly, finally, bring peace and love to mankind.
It was at Kent State that Gary was exposed to all the many facets of art production: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and colored pencils. He started to gravitate toward oil painting, doing an almost fantasy and surrealistic type of social comment art on subjects like war, death, life, and spirit. His canvases were alive with vivid colors, and flowing with emotion.
The most important lesson Gary learned at Kent State was that one’s artwork has to mean something, that it has to move people and make them a willing participant in what’s happening around them.
After “the dream” was over with the shooting of unarmed Kent State University students by members of the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, killing four students and wounding nine others, Gary couldn’t, in all good conscience, go back to Kent State.
Gary then began to develop his own style. It was like a folk impressionism, with a pronounced outlining to create a type of stained-glass effect. He then began to enter his art into shows and galleries.
Gary, a husband, father, and foster parent as well as a jazz-blues musician, has also been active in doing community outreach projects, such as painting a Buddy Holly-themed guitar for “Guitar Mania 2004,” for an auction which benefitted the United Way of Greater Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Education Fund, and other social service agencies. Through community art leagues, he’s given his paintings to worthwhile causes to make peoples’ lives better.
Gary says, “I always want to do this because the creative spirit is strong within me. Nothing would make me happier than to paint, and influence people through it, until the day I die.”