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Longtime Missoula painter and art teacher George Gogas will be honored this Saturday during the annual “Odyssey of the Stars” celebration at the University of Montana. There’s also an accompanying 40-year survey of his art at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s Meloy Gallery.

It's been almost 30 years since Charlie met Pablo.

Painter George Gogas had the idea for his Western-meets-modernism series in 1987 for a showing at the Missoula Art Museum. It was an exhibition on Western imagery, and Gogas, a dedicated, MFA-holding modernist, was a little stumped.

"I thought, 'What can I do that wouldn't be really, really realistic and corny or whatever, about Western art?' " Gogas said earlier this week.

He imagined a stylistic mashup of Charlie Russell's action-filled vistas with Pablo Picasso's flattened cubist planes. The painting was accepted and the largest part of his career was formed – he estimates there are more than 50 now.

To celebrate his long career, including decades as an art teacher and even more as an artist, Gogas has been selected as the 2016 honoree for "The Odyssey of the Stars" at the University of Montana. To accompany Saturday's ceremony, there's also a 40-year survey of Gogas' art at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture's Meloy Gallery.

Each year, UM honors an alumnus from its art programs, whether it's fine art, theater, music, dance or more recently, media arts.

Each year, an alumni is picked from one of the schools in the College of Visual and Performing Arts for "their outstanding achievements and contributions to the professional field," UM art professor Cathryn Mallory noted in an email.

The selections rotate between the four schools, which are Fine Art, Media Arts, Music, and Theater and Dance.

This year, it was the School of Fine Art's turn, they picked Gogas, who earned his bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1951.

Mallory said Gogas was chosen "for his dedication and success as an artist, his ongoing commitment to art education, and his support for all arts institutions in our community."

"Gogas has been an inspirational teacher to numerous students throughout his career. He is always interested in what young artists are doing and has rarely missed a student exhibit at the Gallery of Visual Arts," Mallory said.

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The MMAC show, titled "George Gogas: Odyssey," represents the many series Gogas' concurrently worked in over the years, which began with abstraction to figuration and back again.

"We wanted to have a representation of his development from very early after art school on through the later, more figurative works to chart what I look at as the dismantling of visual representational language, a mimesis kind of taken down to its basic parts and then reconstituted over the course of over 40 years of creative output," said Jeremy Canwell, the MMAC's interim curator.

The oldest piece dates to 1973, a part of his "Montana Midnight" series rooted in color field painting. He called them that because he'd stay up late to work, due to his day job teaching art, including time at Hellgate and Big Sky high schools.

The paintings reflect his formative years as an artist: After graduating from UM, he headed to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he earned his master's degree in fine arts. Abstract expressionism and modernism were the style of the time.

His career hit its stride after 1985, when he retired from teaching and dedicated himself to art full-time. During this period, he started a series called "Rubens Revisited," which were abstract expressionist interpretations of the Flemish Baroque master.

The pieces have "all the cues that tell you that it's a figurative representation without the figuration," Canwell said. "(He's) trying to capture the dynamism and stronger areas of color and movement without it being about veracity and an optical recording."

Two of the "Rubens Revisited" canvases are present in the MMAC exhibition, in addition to a smaller study.

Not long after, Gogas painted the first of his signature series, now nicknamed "Judith Basin Encounter."

"When Charlie Met Pablo on the Open Range" is also present in the show, on loan from the Missoula Art Museum.

"Comes the early '90s, and I'm thinking that isn't the worst idea I ever had, so I started painting a few more," said Gogas, who peppers his stories with self-deprecation and sarcasm.

The format remained the same: Finding reproductions of Russell's canvases and adapting them into cubist language.

"Then I started making social statements with Charlie and Pablo," he said. They're mainly in the titles, such as "When Charlie and Pablo Went Stone Broke in the Stock Market," or "When Charlie and Pablo had Breakfast at McDonald's."

***

In the mid-1990s, Gogas started his bull-rider series, which interprets professional riders through an abstract expressionist fashion. Gogas used to compete as a calf roper, and his wife, Lynn, was a barrel racer.

Canwell said the canvases have a photographic quality, one that starts with an out-of-focus feel with the riders and bulls and dissipates into liquid formations toward the edges. They're "evocative of this dangerous sport, which is risk for it's own sake," he said.

The series has expanded to more than 60, with one show that sold out and others that nearly did.

After seeing Picasso's "Three Musicians" in New York, he initiated yet another series.

"I took Pablo Picasso's painting, reproduced it pretty close and eliminated the middle musician's abstract face and inserted Charlie Russell," he said. He titled it, "When Charlie Joined Pablo's Rock 'N' Roll Band." From there, they grew into organic abstractions with clean brushwork that he called the "Band" series.

"It's totally without narrative, totally abstract. No social, political statements, nothing like that. This is just an organization of formal visual elements. That's the formalist coming out in me from the middle of the 20th century," he said.

Those grew into the "Gold Band" series, a variation in which he set the shapes on a gold background and extreme vertical compositions that circled back to his youth.

He was raised in a Greek Orthodox family – the nearest church was Great Falls. He went to bed at night, and in the corner of his bedroom his mother would hang the icons, such as a candle that would flicker all night.

That was his "earliest recollection of what visual imagery was: Orthodox iconography," he said.

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