INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Michael Gittes

(Author's note:  This interview is part of a two-part series I am writing about Michael Gittes' new show, Ladies and Gentlemen, at Prohibition Gallery in Culver City.  This exhibit represents the artist returning to the five artists who influenced him most: Michelangelo, Jacques-Louis David, Henri Matisse, RenĂ© Magritte, and Jackson Pollock.  Nearly half of the exhibit is devoted to large canvases with their portraits, and the other half contains other works, some of which were influenced by the aforementioned greats.  I was lucky enough to be invited to the gallery for a private showing before the show's opening reception.  The review is located here. I also had the chance to sit down with the artist and to pick his brain about the works on the walls.  Enjoy!)

I On the Arts: So, for my first general question, how did you get started making art?

Michael Gittes:  Well, I always did it as sort of therapeutic remedy… something to ease my mind.  It’s pretty much the only thing where when I’m doing it, I’m focusing only on that, so my mind isn’t racing at all.  I feel calm and it’s great.  I’ve been drawing, like little kids do, for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t start selling stuff until I was 22.  I was using watercolor and ink and I was doing more cartoon-y “dreamscapes” where someone would tell me their dream or something they wanted to see… the first one I did was for my friend Sam.  He said, “I want me as the host of the Tonight Show with Kermit the Frog telling a funny joke…”

IOtA:  That’s really specific.

MG: “…and Born in the USA [-era] Bruce Springsteen as the former guest, so he’s on the couch”.  He said, “I’ve been looking for someone to do this for me for three years.  Can you do it?”  And I was like, “Yeah, I can totally do that.”  So I started doing all these different dreamscapes… all these different weird surreal cartoon-type things that I really liked.  [Soon] one of my other artist friends basically said to me: “If you want to take your stuff to the next level, you have to switch to paint… If you want to grow more as an artist… you’ve done well with watercolor and ink, but you’ve hit that wall.”  And I said, “You know what, shit, you’re right.” 

The problem was [that] all of other my friends who were already artists and selling and showing, they were all really technically sound with the brush.  They were the best of anyone I knew.   And I wasn’t the best.  I was pretty good with the brush, but I never thought I was the best, so I decided that I couldn’t use the brush.   That was my first step—if I’m not using a brush, some sort of unique aesthetic is going to develop eventually, right?
The artist. Copyright Prohibition Gallery.

IOtA:  Did you have formal training, or were you more self-taught?

MG:  I would say I was more self-taught.  I took art class in high school, but my favorite classes… were where they would show you how to do it, and kind of let you do your own thing.  They did certainly teach me a lot, but [Michelangelo, David, Matisse, Magritte and Pollock] taught me the most.

IOtA:  How did you find these artists?  What led to the context where you began to study these particular artists?

MG:  It’s different for all of them.  For Magritte, for example, my father had a lithograph hanging in our house on a beam four feet off the ground, where a little kid could see it.   I actually have a tattoo of the piece, and I remember looking at it, and the crescent was shining through the tree very clearly in a very surreal way.  And for whatever reason, I remember seeing that and thinking, “that’s not correct.  The tree should be blocking it.”  That was the first time I was introduced to the concepts of surrealism in art…  That led me to Magritte and then I started looking at his stuff besides the apples, like at his landscapes or more abstract stuff.

IOtA:  How did you get interested in Michelangelo?

MG:  Well, I love history… I was an American Studies major, and I minored in Art History.  And [I love] the Renaissance because the art and history are so entwined.  I first fell in love with Michelangelo almost before I fell in love with his work, like him as a character.  When I was 13, I was in Florence with my mom, and she took me to see the David… but there was another piece: the Bearded Slave.  For me, I read that as high-concept art: they aren’t fully rendered because they’re slaves.  They’re stuck in this marble.  I thought that was so… rad.  I don’t know if that’s what his intention was, but that’s how I read it.  He was on another level if that’s what his intention was.  And then for [my piece about Michelangelo], I called it Bearded Slave because he really didn’t like to paint.
Michael Gittes. Bearded Slave (Michelangelo Buonarroti).  Acrylic on canvas.
Copyright Prohibition Gallery

IOtA:  Yeah, he was stuck in the vault for all those years doing the ceiling and then they made him do the Last Judgment.

MG: Yeah, exactly.

IOtA:  So you sort of related the artwork that had inspired you to the man himself and that’s how you see him as he is creating various types of forms.

MG:  Yeah, exactly.  I didn’t want to try to emulate his style in any way… it’s more of [that] he is the guy who influenced these guys.   That’s why I had him in the middle, swirling out.

IOtA:  When you were painting, did you have models of each artist that you worked from?

MG:  Some were self-portraits, which I loved… This Michelangelo is based on a self-portrait.  So what I was talking about before, how they taught me how to see, so if it’s a self-portrait, then it’s like they taught me how to see and now this is how I see them how they see them.

IOtA:  That’s like an endless dialogue.  That’s great!

MG:  Exactly.  It becomes two mirrors in front of each other… bouncing some concept back and forth.

IOtA:  More of a general work question.  You didn’t want to do brushwork; I read that you use syringes.  How did you come up with the methods you use?

MG:  I don’t remember the exact moment I decided syringes.  I remember sitting there with chopsticks and spoons—the stuff you have in your kitchen.  I wasn’t getting anywhere with the chopsticks.  I don’t remember how or where I thought of syringes, but what I do remember is sitting at the dinner table with my parents and being like, “I’m gonna fill a syringe with paint!”  What I really remember is being super excited about it before I could get my hands on a syringe.

IOtA:  How long does it take to complete one of these paintings?

MG:  Well, it depends because all of these are pressed, like a mono-print.  I do it like a poor man’s silkscreen.  Essentially, I make a drawing inverted on a template and then I trace my drawing, because I only have ten minutes really to put the paint down because it’ll dry fast.  What really takes the most time is the drawing.  And then I have a limited amount of time to put the paint down, and then I press it.  So what I really love about the process is that I forfeit a certain amount of influence over the aesthetic in general, or how the piece is gonna turn out.  And that’s what makes it really fun for me…  a piece will usually take about a day...  I’ll have an idea when I’m drawing it out, like okay, don’t put too much paint under his eye, don’t want it to bleed into his iris, but at the end of the day… it’ll go where it wants to go.  It’ll paint itself in a weird natural way.   On canvas, I can afford to make a mistake, but on paper, as soon as I put the paint down, it’s there permanently.  The stakes are essentially higher if I’m painting on paper.

IOtA:  You’re from L.A., right?  How has being from L.A. influenced you?  Has it inspired you or your work or your aesthetic?  

MG:  I mean, I don’t know if there’s an “L.A.” aesthetic.  For me personally, in my own context, there definitely is an L.A. aesthetic.  And I’ve talked to other artists who live in L.A. who would agree.  When I was painting in New York, my paintings were much colder—and it wasn’t even winter.  They were just darker and almost like the way I view L.A. versus New York in my head.  You know, each city has its own pros and cons.  My work in L.A. was easier on the eyes, less jarring.  I did this portrait of James Joyce that I gave to my sister when I was in New York, and it was just… insane.  And I don’t know why I did it that way, but I think it’s just because I was in New York.  However my life has changed or [has been] affected while I’m in New York, it affects what I express, what comes out of me.

IOtA:  If we could talk a little bit about the Matisse, I noticed that, especially with the Magritte and Pollock, the way you’ve done their portraits really mirrors their aesthetic.  How did you come up with the idea for the composition for the Matisse?  Because it doesn’t really echo any particular kind of Matisse aesthetic.
Michael Gittes.  The Difference Between Things (Henri Matisse). Acrylic on canvas.  
Copyright Prohibition Gallery.

MG: That’s a great question.  Because with Matisse, I drew more from his quotes or his writing.  So one quote of his that really resonated with me was about repetition and about how when you paint the same subject more than one time, you understand it better, better the more you paint it.  What I did was, I did the big portrait of him and then 25 other portraits of him.   I tried to do the same portrait, so it sort illustrates his point, [that] it’ll come out different each time you go at it.  But it also illustrates my point, which is that my process has influence over it.  I was sincerely trying to make all those little heads look identical.

IOtA:  What about the work behind you… with the man in the boat?  I really like that one [seen below].  What’s that story?
Michael Gittes.  Shoot the Moon.  Acrylic on paper.
Copyright Prohibition Gallery.

MG:  It’s inspired by a movie called Shoot the Moon.  It’s a really great, intense, sad movie.  It’s about this guy who has an affair and messes his whole life up and isolates himself in a serious way.  And there’s a famous scene of him alone, rowing out on some lake, which I really loved.  And at the end of the movie I realized that they never put the moon in [that scene].  So I decided I wanted to take the feeling of being an outsider, wanting to be somewhere other than where you are, which is why I wanted it to be like, he’s just utterly alone in this blank white [space], just him and his reflection and nothing else.  And this kind of beautiful space that he’ll never reach.

IOtA:  So what do you hope people take away from your work?

MG:  I hope people can feel the same way that I feel when I’m making the work, which is almost… removed from reality for a moment or two, or ten, or for me, a day.  Just… to get lost in something.  To me, that’s something I strive for general.  If I’m doing anything I feel passionately about, to get lost in it.

(Prohibition Gallery is located at 6039 Washington Boulevard. Ladies and Gentlemen closes February 1.)


  1. Great interview! I want to see the Springsteen Tonight Show Dreamscape!!


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