Gary Gaffney's Citywide Debut

Gary Gaffney is a veteran Cincinnati artist, but his artwork speaks directly to the new millennium. He makes use of everyday objects inventively. Religious icons, nature drawings and popular images

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Gary Gaffney is a veteran Cincinnati artist, but his artwork speaks directly to the new millennium. He makes use of everyday objects inventively. Religious icons, nature drawings and popular images are the foundation of his mixed-media objects.

In a piece like "Connect," part of Gaffney's series of collages on display at Suzanna Terrill Gallery in Over-the-Rhine, magazine photographs and book drawings of birds, flowers and the Virgin Mary are glued to wood panels pulled from his discarded kitchen cabinets. "Connect" is folksy enough to look as if he created the piece in a garage woodshop, but closer inspection reveals plenty of polish.

Gaffney walks the line between crafts and classical art, and his work is more interesting because of it.

The best example of his high-low technique hangs in the front window of Terrill's Main Street gallery. The window sculpture is comprised of 21 pieces of driftwood Gaffney gathered from the banks of the Ohio River. He sanded the wood pieces and painted some of them black, white and gold-leafed. He then installed them inside the gallery's window bay, hanging each piece individually with clear string.

The effect is sublime. The piece appears to be floating in midair yet, due to the common materials used, remains grounded and approachable.

Gaffney is earnest about what he does, and the driftwood sculpture reflects his care, skill and passion. Yet it's also an ordinary work, making use of common objects that on their own attract little attention.

That's also what I like best about Gaffney's mixed media collages displayed in the gallery's front room. They're not conventional high art. You get the initial impression that anything goes. You see the smile behind it. While the objects are made of common, inexpensive items, nothing about the completed works is mundane.

After 27 years living in Mount Healthy and teaching at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Gaffney is currently experiencing a citywide burst of recognition. Terrill Gallery dedicates the front half of its space to his mixed-media collages. He's recently showed work at the Art Academy's Chidlaw Gallery in Mount Adams. Across the river, in Newport, he had a piece in a group show at The Artery, an artist cooperative.

He's enjoyed local exhibitions before, but I can't remember a time when the spotlight burned so bright for him.

Listening to Gaffney explain his work, you get the impression that he's a vertical artist. He collects magazine photos. He curates the images and presents the work. His objects reflect the idea of a cabinet of curiosities. The magazine cut-outs are pasted to wood panels, which can be rearranged in a number of ways.

The boundaries between his life — like his kitchen cupboards — and his work blend together beautifully.

I don't know where Gaffney's art will head next, but I do know something about his personal plans. He recently returned from Havana, Cuba, where he mounted a solo exhibition at the Centro Desarrollo des Artes Visuales. It was his second trip to Cuba after visiting in 2000 as part of a Contemporary Arts Center contingent. He became friends with some Havana visual artists during the earlier trip, and an exhibition slot was offered to him. He accepted and began to create some new work.

After months of paperwork, documents and haphazard communication, Gaffney traveled to Havana, carrying his work with him, due to shipping complications. Talking recently at Terrill Gallery, he remains energized by his Havana experience.

"There was no food at the space, and everybody really looked at the art," Gaffney says. "I go to shows here and everyone has their backs to the artwork. In Havana, I saw people really looking at the work closely. They came up to me and wanted to talk to me about the work. They were really engaged."

Gaffney hopes to return to Havana with a group of Art Academy students. He also wants to sponsor an exhibition exchange between his students and students at ISA (Instituto Superior des Artes), Cuba's premier art school. Basically, he intends to open doors for his students, eager for them to experience the excitement he felt in Havana.

For now, Gaffney is enjoying citywide recognition. Looking ahead, he wants to broaden his base dramatically.

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