“What would happen if things went wrong?”
This question is posed to me by a tattoed high school art teacher in his Lewis Center basement studio—a full 365-degrees of hyper-realistic dystopian paintings surround us, each carrying an undeniable political weight.
I guess I had my answer.
On his drafting table, aside from the scattered rainbow smears of acrylic paint, sits his leather sketchbook, the pages holding an intricate universe of context he created for the paintings in his upcoming gallery, Chapter 1. Inside, everything from scrupulously intimate details about the characters in his portraits—names, habits, what shoes they would own, how tall they are, what they are afraid of—complete a screenplay of how the events in his paintings unfolded.
“Storytelling is what I always wanted to do, and art sort of became that. I wanted to take everything that I loved about movies—how color dictates mood and composition—and put it into my work.”
Meet Grant Gilsdorf, a stout ex-Bowling Green football player who turned to art after an injury on the field. On the wall near the door is a large corkboard with storyboarded printouts of iconic movie stills, cinematography-rich images from the likes of Aronofsky’s The Fountain and Fincher’s Fight Club. His two identical black cats, Sir Remy Purzalot and McWhiskerface, purr wistfully as Gilsdorf animatedly traces the origin of his art to George W. Bush’s reelection.
“There was a bit of cynicism that started building inside of me after that election. This series is my reaction, deep-rooted in that.”
Considering he started this series in 2011, a lot of the content eerily turned into prophecy.
“Four years ago I started working on this grand narrative—the government overstepping its boundaries. An America divided, an unspoken civil war. I literally started scripting it out like a movie. And what became increasingly terrifying were the beats that were happening. Before Flint, I had scripted out a poisoned water supply. I wrote in a re-emerging racial tension, and then Ferguson happened. Then overnight, my series changed once Trump was elected, evolving from this allegory to social commentary.”
He calls the genre for his dystopian series “speculative fiction.”
But it’s not just his technical form or powerful imagery that makes his work unique. It is the almost obsessive amount of thought he has put into every detail of the show, right down to an optional QR code that links you to a soundtrack to accompany your stroll through his gallery.
“The unique thing about the show is that the way that I structured the paintings is kind of like watching a movie trailer—dissonant bits and fragments that the viewers will have to put together. But when you read it as a whole, it’s going to create an overall narrative.”
He plans on having a triadic structure: plot, character, and setting. To communicate plot, he has created faux newspaper clippings to line the walls of the gallery, chronicling the events leading up to the riots and revolution, carrying the viewer through his fictional universe.
His portrait pieces serve as the characters of his story, whether it is the bubble gum popping assassin slipping a razorblade out of her mouth to stab the suit stepping into the subway, or the ex football star with a black crow on his bat—a boy who’s lost everything once the system collapsed. It is these types of hyper-specific details that make Gilsdof’s work come alive.
“I don’t enjoy painting just a person. I like to think of myself as a filmmaker, and I like to decide what my shot is going to be. And I don’t know what my shot is going to be until I know their motives or who they are.”
Finally, the paintings that represent setting mirror the exact aspect ratio of a movie screen—the image serving as a singular moment, or frame, in his unmade movie. Gilsdorf also plans on plastering propaganda posters he made over the walls of the gallery, so if you can’t afford to take home a painting, you can tear down a poster and have a keepsake from the show.
“Selling paintings would just be an added bonus for me,” chortled Gilsdorf. “This is my chance to show off what has been stuck in my mind for a long, long time. I just ask that you come with an open heart, open eyes, and figure out what the art is trying to say.”