On a hot Friday afternoon, with sun streaming in through a wall of windows, Thomas Gieseke and Todd Weiner stand in front of “Circus Maximus,” the title piece of Gieseke’s July show. They are each considering its content, but from different angles.
At 96-by-36 inches, the acrylic painting takes up a good amount of wall space in the front room of the Todd Weiner Gallery. The painting depicts a Ben Hur-style chariot race in a packed auditorium, but the chariots are not the focal point. If the viewer’s eyes initially jump to one spot, that’s likely to be the bleeding horse held aloft in the mouth of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
But there’s also the lion, the race car, the giant robot, the blimp and King Kong. Oh, and the alien spaceship.
Though Weiner has spent a decent amount of time staring at the piece, he’s still floored by the details. “We could sit and dissect this thing for hours. If this was in the lobby of a building and you kept walking by it, like at a doctor’s office, tell me you wouldn’t stop every time.”
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Gieseke credits the wild detail work to the idea that he has never stopped being about 12 years old.
When he was a boy, his family moved to the then-undeveloped edge of Overland Park. He spent hours exploring nature with a sketch book. One of his earliest influences was Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, whose outlandish cartoon drawings of “Rat Fink,” hot rods and motorcycles were popularized on his famous “weirdo shirts” in the late 1950s.
Gieseke characterizes his own work as “grotesque but enchanting artwork with a juvenile twist.”
“I’m just now hitting my stride after 39 years of doing this,” Gieseke says. “I will never stop trying to improve myself up to the last brush stroke that I make. I’m constantly learning something new and constantly trying to better myself and my painting.”
Gallery work is new for Gieseke. From 1977 until 2011 he worked as an illustrator. Then suddenly the work dried up. He said it was no one thing, but the collision of a variety of factors: computer graphics, print being replaced by digital media and simply a cultural shift.
So, “forced into retirement,” as he puts it, the artist now does as he pleases. He was surprised at how difficult it was to get into a local gallery. In 2014 he managed to start showing at a gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. In 2015, he had his first local show at Todd Weiner.
Although he has shifted from advertising art to fine art, he still considers himself a draftsman more than a painter.
“It takes a lot of drawing and a lot of draftsmanship to get it to the final drawing stage,” he says. “That’s part of the illustration experience. I did the drawing first, then I did the final. When everything is sort of outlined I’ll transfer the lines to the canvas, and then I work.
“I have such a good idea of how color and shade is going to work that I’ll work from the northeast to the southwest like Sherman’s march to the sea. I’ve got a friend who’s a photographer, and he calls me the human inkjet printer.”
Weiner particularly admires Gieseke’s ability to light up a neon sign in a painting, like the “Circus Maximus” signboard.
“He’s one of the few people who can pull this off,” Weiner says. “I’ve got other people that when they try to light up the canvas a certain way … well, there’s the studying to be a master, and then there’s the master.”
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“Circus Maximus” is at the Todd Weiner Gallery, 115 W. 18th St., through July 30. First Friday hours: 5-9 p.m. Regular hours: 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Go to toddweinergallery.com for more information.