When artist Robert Gullie went to the second floor of Albany International Airport to check out his exhibit in the new Annex Gallery, he was a little surprised to see people sitting at tables munching doughnuts and sipping coffee.
Twelve of his vibrantly colored collage artworks, fantasy scenes inhabited by quirky characters created from paper cutouts, hang on the walls, and they are hard to miss. But this comfy, carpeted art space is next to Dunkin’ Donuts and close to the queues of travelers waiting to go through security, so the first thing you see and hear is people. It’s more like a snack-and-chat room than a quiet place to ruminate on art.
And yet, like the moon moving the ocean tides, Gullie’s work seems to be having an effect on the sea of coffee-imbibing strangers that have flowed in and out of the space since the show opened in December.
‘Where Boundaries Fade’
WHAT: Solo exhibit by Robert Gullie
WHERE: Annex Gallery, second floor, Albany International Airport, 737 Albany-Shaker Road, Albany
WHEN: Through September
HOW MUCH: Free
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people that I don’t know that have been sitting there. It’s where the people are,” says Gullie.
One man told the Cohoes artist that he was so upset when he missed his plane but looking at Gullie’s art changed his mood.
“It’s really a wonderful opportunity for me,” Gullie says. “I love it when people look at my work. They usually have a lot of fun. And there’s always something to find that they didn’t see at first glance. They find little things here and there.”
The Annex Gallery, which will mark its first year in May, is a collaboration between the airport’s Art & Culture Program and Saratoga Arts, with Elizabeth Dubben, director of exhibitions at the Saratoga Springs arts center, acting as curator.
Artist Robert Cartmell of Albany, internationally known for whimsical and colorful abstract paintings and drawings that reflect his passion for roller coasters, was the first artist to exhibit there, and Gullie is the second.
The space was formerly occupied by Departure, the chic gift shop that showcases our regional museums and artists. Two years ago, Departure moved to the first floor, to a specially designed glass niche between the airline check-in counters and baggage claim, and you’ll find two more Gullie collages in the shop, hanging over the checkout counter.
Paint, glue and paper
For Gullie, who is 62, making collages with paint, glue and paper is a new avenue of expression after many years as a photographer who shot film, developed it in his basement darkroom and hand-tinted the images.
“It was all this portraiture work. I used to call it environmental portraits because I would only take them outside. Because the light, the natural light, you can’t beat that. And it was wonderful for hand-tinting the photographs.”
His “Dreamscapes,” photographs that combine real and surreal elements using props like dolls, toys and masks, have been in dozens of group and solo shows since the 1990s, including the annual Photography Regional.
Gullie began experimenting with collage about five years ago when he retired after 32 years as a state worker in the Department of Social Services.
“I almost went crazy because I couldn’t stand being retired,” he says. “I missed working with people.”
Gullie, who is married and the father of two grown children, now works in a studio on Remsen Street in Cohoes that he shares with artists John Gernon and Laura Provo-Parker and his guitar-playing nephew.
“I like to set up little scenes, like little tableaus. These are the way I would decorate them if I had a little fantasy world. I think they look a lot like my photographs.”
In fact, the images one sees at the airport are not the actual collages, but archival pigment prints of the digitally captured images, which are enlarged and professionally printed. This additional process heightens their surreal quality.
While the prints at the airport measure 26 by 26 inches, the originals, all square, vary from 12 to 20 inches.
A fun process
“The process is really a lot of fun,” Gullie says.
“I find one piece that I like. And then I just keep thumbing through books. It’s really like setting up a photo actually. You know when the composition is there and when everything is in place. Then I glue it down. It’s like taking a picture. I taught myself how to do them. It’s the same with photography. I’m not a trained photographer. I just mastered what I needed to do to make the art that I wanted to do.”
The collage images come from books, magazines, ephemera, even his own photos.
The cutouts are glued onto wood panels that have been gessoed and painted in acrylic. Backgrounds are covered with brightly colored dots applied with an oil paint marker.
“I’m kind of hyperactive, and when I do that, it’s kind of meditative. The repeated tapping of the dots on the paper is kind of relaxing.”
Gullie loves the stories that children and adults make up while looking at his art. In a highly imaginative way, he seems connected to the odd characters that he has brought to life.
“She’s so sad to me,” he says of “Aqua at Peace,” in which a female figure in black dress and heels has a huge round head that looks like ancient Mayan sculpture and a face adorned with lipstick and mascara.
In “Martian Concubine,” the face of a towering statue wears a look of alarm as it views a procession of smiling ladies in long white skirts.
“Those ladies are having so much fun. I got them from an old postcard but I couldn’t read it because it was in Polish,” he says.
“Jackson’s World” is a weird underwater adventure featuring a seal with big human eyes and a coral reef that is home to a mysterious monk and undulating snakes.
Works are stories
Gullie loves folk art and sees “folkiness” in his own work because of the freedom he has as a self-trained artist.
“It usually has a little story with it, a story that people make up. I usually give enough element so that they can make their own story. And that’s what I think surrealism is all about.”
Gullie discovered surrealism as a child, when he saw his first Salvador Dali painting, “The Crucifixion,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
When Gullie was growing up in Troy, his mother would take him by train to Manhattan to visit art museums.
“She painted a little,” he says. “My mother used to change our house around all the time. One time, I came home and she had painted the whole house purple inside.”
The statues in his work? They probably come from the hours he spent inside churches as a young Catholic.
“I would always look at the stained glass and the statues. I loved the statues.”
Last year, Gullie’s collages were selected for two juried shows, “Construct” at Saratoga Arts and the Upstate Artists Show at the Erik Laffer Gallery in Schuylerville.
Beginning Friday, he will be part of the group show “Beautifully Strange” at the Clement Art Gallery in Troy.
“They are not big sellers,” Gullie says of his collages. “But I just do it because I love doing it. It’s a reflection of the way I feel. In my mind, I can still be a kid. I don’t want to grow up.”