Part 1: Alfredo Gisholt Globe Trots from Mexico City to Boston

Alfredo Gisholt in his studio in 2013, photographed by Lourdes Almeida
Alfredo Gisholt in his studio in 2013, photographed by Lourdes Almeida

When Alfredo Gisholt, born in 1971 in Mexico City, recounts his early childhood, he admits that art-making was not a preoccupation of his. Although creativity was encouraged, his expression of it was limited to building toys and drawing diagrams of soccer matches. At the age of fifteen Alfredo moved to Miami, and upon graduating high school, received a Humanities scholarship to Miami  Dade  Community  College. He states that a requirement of the program insisted he take two studio art classes, one of which he would choose to be figure drawing. He refers to this course as the catalyst, which would decidedly entrench his focus on making art.

Around 1990, Gisholt traveled to Spain, where he stayed for a year. While there, he took advantage of visiting the art museums, and learned how much he identified with the sensibility of Spanish Art. There was a discernible familiarity; “the simultaneous optimism and pessimism — the contrast and tension between something incredibly beautiful and moving, and painful at the same time.” This sense of familiarity takes root in his adolescent years spent in Mexico City. Gisholt notes a prevalent aspect of his formative experience centers on the diverse energy near the heart of the city he was raised in; for one, notions of disparity are not only present, but glaring. Consequently, Alfredo has since held Spanish artists such as Goya and El Greco in high esteem.

Upon leaving Spain, Gisholt gathered what possessions he had left in Miami, and returned to Mexico City. Seeking out the formal training he deemed necessary to emulate the Spanish artists he found himself so enamored with, Alfredo enrolled in the Academy of San Carlos. Not yet a university, the academy followed a master and apprentice model which sought to impart an emphasis on representational drawing and painting through observational study. He would spend the next three and a half years refining his technique, all the while working the morning shift for a 19th century Mexican cuisine restaurant.

While still attending the Academy of San Carlos, Gisholt recalls how he stumbled upon the works of Frank Auerbach and John Walker — two additional artists that would have a profound impact on his own personal sensibility. Alfredo had intended to catch a free performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with his student discount, yet to his dismay it was sold out. Instead, he browsed through a bookstore until he found a book on the School of London painters — a camp of artists to which Auerbach and Walker belonged. Upon reading about Walker, Gisholt learned that Walker was living in New York, and teaching at Yale. Seeing the potential for an opportunity to learn directly from the source, Alfredo decided to seek Walker out. However, because the Academy of San Carlos was a stand-alone technical school at the time of his attendance, Gisholt did not actually possess a degree. Thus, in order to remedy this, Alfredo returned to Miami in 1994 — where he would enroll in the Florida International University for the next two years. Unfortunately, after all this, Gisholt’s application to Yale was rejected.

Rejection from Yale however, would only serve to be a minor speed bump in a series of events that would lead Gisholt to his future mentor. The summer after his graduation, Alfredo and his wife were married. Having just finished graduate school herself, she was able to work in the same school she had previously been an intern at; Lesley University in Massachusetts. According to Alfredo, within the first week after moving to Maynard, Massachusetts, he opened an edition of the Boston Globe. Lo and behold, there in the art section, was an article about an exhibit for Boston University’s faculty member John Walker. Although previously unbeknownst to Alfredo, realizing that Walker was so close gave him a renewed sense of opportunity. Gisholt would spend the next year bolstering his portfolio before applying, and being accepted to Boston University’s master’s program.

Shortly after receiving his MFA from BU, Gisholt would spend half a year in Venice working as a custodian for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. During this period Alfredo took every advantage to soak up what the Venetian landscape had to offer — focusing his research on the principles and design of European art. Moreover, with the support of the Dedalus Foundation, Alfredo would spend the latter half of 2000 traveling and expanding his artistic studies in Spain. After a year abroad, Gisholt returned to the States where he was invited to teach courses in Boston University’s master’s program. In a poetic turn of events Alfredo Gisholt discovered a passion for making art, found himself within striking distance of the professor whom he had sought to learn from by sheer coincidence, and then enrolled and obtained an MFA from the same university that he would later teach at — alongside the man whom had become his mentor.

To date, Alfredo has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibits throughout the United States and Mexico, and is currently living and working in Boston, Massachusetts; serving as associate professor of painting and drawing at Brandeis University. He has also been the recipient of an impressive array of prestigious awards and grants from international institutions, including the Dedalus Foundation, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, George and Helen Segal Fellowship, Norman Award, and Blanche E. Coleman Foundation Award.

Part 2: Painting To the Water

When asked what about John Walker’s work was so alluring to Alfredo Gisholt, Alfredo begins by identifying the kind of conceptual content that resonates with his own personal sensibility. Citing things like the acquisition of identity, our origins, where we are going; life, death, and our relationship to nature. “I felt John was painting about the things I cared about,” Alfredo says in Hyperallergic’s article Beer with a Painter. Speaking from my own experience, there’s an uncanny sense of amity that comes with seeing an artwork give articulation to something you’re grappling to parse yourself — almost like a feeling of déjà vu.

Shortly after starting his first semester in Boston University’s master’s program, Gisholt recalls working on a sequence of paintings about a hurricane that had hit Acapulco. At this time Alfredo’s work could still be characterized as primarily referential; drawing and painting served as a means of integrating and incorporating what he observed into a seemingly narrative structure. In his own words, Alfredo describes his painting process during this period as being analogous to constructing collages. Although, as his process evolved, Gisholt began to question how he could achieve the same aptitude for narrative without relying so much on figurative elements. Perhaps what Alfredo was looking for could be illuminated by an enigmatic proposition  from  his  professor  John Walker. One day, as  Alfredo  recollects, John  came  into Alfredo’s studio and said, “imagine if you could paint to the water,” the operative word here being ‘to.’  That very same day Walker returned and said, “I live by the water in New Bedford. I’m leaving tomorrow. Buy a French easel and come with me.”

The experience would be one classified as being remarkably enlightening, although marked by considerable growing pains. Taking account of the events that passed during the time he spent in New Bedford, Alfredo describes what appears to be a grim set of circumstances. Of the nine days he painted outside, not one of them was absent of rain. Equipped with an easel, umbrella, and plastic bags around his shoes, Alfredo managed a laborious routine of painting, retreating to shelter to dry off, and returning to the rainswept landscape.

Maine Landscape — Dusk, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 21 x 18 Inches
Maine Landscape — Dusk, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 21 x 18 Inches

Upon returning to his studio in Boston, Gisholt remembers having an epiphany. Due to the inclement weather, the paint refused to adhere to the surface of his paintings, leaving him with an object, which hardly resembled the scenery he had visited. Yet, even though his plein-air paintings were scarcely rendered, Alfredo found them to be rich in something that his previous studio paintings were comparatively lacking. Whereas his studio paintings leaned more toward static observation and referential representation, the paintings he made outside in New Bedford contained a more kinetic quality. In his pursuit of conventional representation, Gisholt had inadvertently stumbled into a new genre of representation — one that sacrificed visual description in the service of emphasizing visual experience. Therefore, it was at this moment that Alfredo began to understand what his professor had surreptitiously meant; “painting to the water,” is not about painting what one sees, it’s about painting how one sees.

Alfredo has since invested a great deal of time and energy into examining the way in which he sees; himself, his environment, and the intersection between the two. Moreover, he does so through a dynamic lens — understanding that neither him, nor the space around him is ever fixed. He explained that he begins every morning in his studio by making sketches. Through this exercise, he finds ways to study and explore how he sees. It’s like meditation; watching if any patterns appear to emerge and surveying how composition can be arranged, all with a candid sense of curiosity. Alfredo considers drawing and painting as a means of discovery, and a chance to see — not only how one shapes meaning from their experience — but also how one’s experience shapes the way they see.

Maine Seacoast series in Alfredo’s studio
Maine Seacoast series in Alfredo’s studio

Part 3: Experiencing Fact and Fiction

As I briefly discussed in the last entry, for Alfredo, the notion of experience has come to be the axis around which his entire practice revolves. Experience is a fluid and elusive phenomenon though. It is a condition that is ever-present and always changing. It isn’t tangible, yet it touches every aspect of our lives. It is both something we make, and something, which makes us. In this sense, it possesses a duality in which the only common denominator is one’s self. With this in mind, one can begin to see the how the influence of duality has become a prominent condition of Gisholt’s vision.

A symptom of duality is the presence of ambiguity, which Gisholt purports is an essential aspect of his work. Ambiguity, Like Alfredo’s work, has a tendency to oscillate between various points of reference — encouraging the potential for meaningful connections, without ever landing on any definitive conclusion. This fluidity serves to generate the space in which Gisholt’s body of experience can be constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed into an object with the capacity to feel both familiar, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Take the relationship between fiction and fact, for instance. Although they may give the impression of being diametrically opposed, Gisholt regards them as being mutually inclusive. Where fiction and fact overlap, tension is generated; and where there is tension, there is a space in which fiction and fact compete, cooperate, and proceed to inform each other. Furthermore, Alfredo applies this same dynamic between fiction and fact to image and painting; fiction being to fact what an image is to a painting. The challenge, Alfredo supposes, is composing the painting in a manner that reads factual — evokes a feeling of “realness” — without forfeiting the image’s capacity to remain malleable. Essentially, the painting is the object, which represents the overlapping space where tension can be observed, while the image reflects the capacity for the viewer’s experience to be transposed into reality.

Night Studio II, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 78 x 90 Inches
Night Studio II, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 78 x 90 Inches

Alfredo Gisholt’s latest body of work, Rituals of Perception is on exhibit now at Deborah Colton Gallery until May 15th. Featuring over 100 artworks, and encompassing the entire gallery, this show is a must see for anyone with a taste for abstract artwork. Serving as the largest works of the show, his Studio series introduces seven paintings on canvas prominently displayed in our main gallery space. Here we can see Gisholt’s visual vocabulary is present in full force. Line, texture, color, form, and figuration seamlessly blend, exchange banter, and invite the viewer to assemble a space that is playful and poetic. Ensconced in these compositions is an inscription of untapped potential. Due to the enigmatic nature of Gisholt’s abstracted artworks, there is no beginning nor end to the experience that can unfold — and that is precisely the point. These paintings are kinetic, not static. They have the capacity to guide and share experience without the encumbrance of plot, premise, or lofty concepts. Their appeal is not to understand what they are about, but instead to be read like a conversation with one’s self — a subliminal synthesis between you and the artwork by means of your own visual involvement.

Written by Grayson Chandler