Being Art:
The Paintings of Gary Honig

   I first encountered Gary Honig’s paintings in situ, exhibited in offices, nightclubs, and apartment complexes around Washington, DC. The paintings were articulate and singular, ambitious and unapologetic. Part of what I found so impressive about Honig’s works was their confidence. He seems to throw himself into his paintings with a resolve and assurance that his journey over canvas will carry him where he wants – and the journey itself will be rewarding.

   As renowned artist Tom Nakashima, Professor Emeritus of Art at Augusta State University, says of Honig’s work: “He never seems to be trying to establish himself as a trendsetter. He is more interested in the act of doing art than in making something that would historically make a mark for him. It is more about process.”

   Born in 1954, Honig, who actively began painting art seriously in 1990, agrees: “I keep creating for my fans, and not for breakthroughs. Gaining wider recognition in any venue today is a challenge. When three people in a room today have heard of the same artist, it’s quite an accomplishment.”

   Honig’s path to art was somewhat unconventional as he limited what some would call traditionally schooled methods and materials. Instead, he has spent a lifetime acquiring practical working knowledge of the concepts and mechanical processes of “doing art.” His extensive work as a house painter gave him an intimate understanding of the attributes of paint as a medium. His sense of rhythm and pacing is also shaped by his lifetime love of music both as a fan and a producer.

Nakashima continues: “He obviously has a certain facile way of working, where he has knowledge of techniques about painting, which are probably distilled from commercial house painting techniques that he developed. I think that would differentiate him from other people who were beginning painters. He is very sophisticated in his ability to use a paintbrush, mix colors, and make clean edges.”

   According to Nakashima, the natural familiarity with the technical qualities of house paint, coupled with his distinctly experimental philosophy, lends an ab ex quality to his work—post-mid-century. His earliest exhibited composition, (a mile off) Dry Tortugas, seems like it might spring loose at any moment, in the spirit of how art critic and filmmaker Amei Wallach described the work of Lee Krasner as having the “impact of a hurricane.” Intense color, energetic gestures dotted with drips and lines, and other markers of chance characterize the work. In contrast, Honig’s looming monochromatic paintings, like Mercy and Twilight Gleaming, are equal parts gigantic black strokes and empty canvas, showing Honig’s ability to use negative space just as powerfully as the lack thereof in his full-coverage works that brim with color.

   Explains artist and critic Barbie Coleman, “What I love most about Honig’s art is his attention-grabbing freedom of expression and uber-appreciation of color, tone, and texture.” Many of his works, like Valentine, have a tactile beauty, while others, like End of the Day, are a delicate dance of light versus dark, “often overpowering one’s sense of expectations.” Coleman describes Honig’s paintings as “brutal, destructive, without hierarchy and rules. For him, the canvas is a place where countless different meanings cross and enter into relationship with one another.”

   Early on, Honig was curious about form and structure. His younger years included adventures undertaken by someone blessed with both the innate need to discover—sometimes regardless of the consequences—and an inseparable band of like-minded explorers. He and his compatriots constructed elaborate structures in the woods of Montgomery County Maryland that were equal parts sculpture and fortress, using materials purloined from the suburban developments that were spreading across the countryside. This adaptive reuse of materials has been a repeating element in Honig’s life.

   The foundations of his art roared to life in his later work in the construction industry, and in his rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of historic structures in Washington, D.C. Refrains of building would be echoed in works like 6-6666, Block No. 3 and Mach 2 Door, which show a dichotomous sense of cobbled commotion and studied precision. An intimacy with the materials is evident, and, in a paradigm revisited over and over, the utilitarian nature of the paint complements the design.

Honig’s 1960s were fueled by heavy doses of Hendrix, Dylan, Beatles, and Cream, along with frequent forays into the mind expansion culture of the period. He learned to play drums and guitar and explored the propulsive actions that would later infuse his paintings—absorbing the rhythm and motion of inspired chaos while honing his knowledge of what it means to hold precision in his hands.

The musical experience is manifested in paintings such as Kokopelli and Might Makes Right (a protest song) that display a serendipity of color like an unexpected rhythm, evoking a sensation of motion. Attesting to the parallels, Nakashima stated, “I think Gary views art, like music, through the lens of a performance. I don’t think he differentiates between Jimi Hendrix destroying a guitar and Chris Burden being nailed to the hood of a Volkswagen. It’s the excitement—the violation of taboos—that he considers important.”

In the late 1970’s Honig’s affinity for music led to roles as a record producer at Adelphi Records, in Washington, D.C., and as a manager for touring acts. His musical sensibility is expressed in many works, notably Get Up and Unconscious Multitude, with its movement and cadence of colors, the tempo of strokes, the crescendo of tones like a Duane Allman solo—qualities that would become cemented into his artistic vocabulary. Honig’s later abstract expressionist paintings are rarely meant to portray actual objects or even emotions. Instead, they touch the observer deep in the subconscious, evoking a sense of the primeval and tapping into a collective archetypal language. It’s an approach channeled in part by Honig painting spontaneously, almost unconsciously, creating a play of action in the moment.

Says Honig: “When you’re painting, you have a central concept that may offer various kinds of details and processes. You can go in a direction, gathering up whatever you need to move in that direction. It’s not necessarily that you planned to make a picture a certain way. But figuring out where I’m going and how to get there is in my mind the artist experience.”

When he was 23, producing folk singer Jaime Brockett, he met his wife Peggi. Her being 9 months older, he often jokes “means she was conceived for me.” Together they have formed a perfect friendship that lasts to this day, each forging their own paths, each creating in their own voice. His work often reflects her influence on him as a true partner.

Sculptor Wendy Ross also finds musical overtones in much of Honig’s work. “The rhythmic quality is very reflective of his own life,” says Ross. “He has a tremendous freedom when he starts.” Ross has watched him work, noting his approach to the blank canvas. “He’s got that notion of experimentation,” she says. “He doesn’t know quite what he’s going to do. He’s very precision-based, and he’s very thorough in his work, but you get this feeling of energy and gesture.”

As a collection, Honig’s work exhibits ever-changing notions. Minimal, contained pieces like Vetheuil II—with delicate crayon marks surrounded by white space—lie opposite more explosive, all-encompassing endeavors, like Slippin into the Darkness. Together, says Ross, “they don’t look static; I don’t see any of his pieces as static.” Much like Krasner, Honig has never been able to understand the artist whose image never changes.

In Key West, Florida during the 1970s, Honig entered a sublime whirlwind of wildlife and freedom from rules. He began hanging out with a local luminary named Teresa “Murphy” Clark—a vibrant and enthusiastic soul and former girlfriend of Jerry Jeff Walker, the famed singer songwriter with
the force of personality strong enough to originally entice Jimmy Buffet down to America’s southernmost frontier. They rented a rambling house on Von Phister Street owned by actor Peter Fonda and novelist Thomas McGuane who acquired it during the filming of “92 In The Shade.” Honig would make mental maps of Key West’s legendary sunsets, back alleys and cactus blossom perfumed streets with the late nights that flowed in drinking holes like the Chart Room and Green Parrot. He surrounded himself with colorful and dangerous actors. These encounters would eventually take form in works like Fantasy Fest and Full Moon Saloon, full-coverage paintings that lure the viewer with a push and pull created by contrasts of color and texture.

Honig’s work finds kinship in abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann’s belief that a painting, for the audience as well as the artist, should be about discovery—an exploration of areas that are oftentimes impossible to articulate, given the limitations of language. “The art of pictorial creation is so complicated—it’s so astronomical in its possibilities of relation and combination that it would take an act of superhuman concentration to explain the final realization,” expounded Hofmann.

Nakashima notes the experiential nature of Honig’s work: “He definitely is more of an existentialist than most artists today. If he’s looking for beauty, it’s there because he feels in looking at it that it’s there. It’s not because of anything intrinsic in the painting that makes it beautiful.”

Clyfford Still’s exposition on interpretation also applies to Honig’s work: “People should look at the work itself and determine its meaning to them. I prefer the innocent reaction of those who might think that they see cloud shapes in my paintings to what a critic says that he sees in them.”

In 1978, Honig joined up with Murphy in Austin, Texas, where he was introduced to the traveling Willie Nelson family, which included Willie and Paul English, Bobbie, Jody Payne, Mickey Raphael, Bee Spears, and a host of others. They became close friends, and in the subsequent 40 years, they established close bonds and shared experiences on the road, witnessing the rotating cast of characters you’d expect to find surrounding a weathered icon. Frequent trips to Willie’s inner sanctum have bestowed him with constant existential revelations.

Like Joan Mitchell’s art, Honig’s compositions are often “a meditation on bits of landscape and air,” as the poet John Ashbery remarked about her work in 1965. Like Mitchell, in Honig’s work there are new forms, new images, but no more than are needed at any given moment. Honig does not fear change but embraces it.

In the 1990s, Honig’s proximity to the evolving downtown D.C. art scene became direct alongside a group of experimental and contemporary artists carving out a place for themselves in a renovated area of the city known as Shaw. Honig dove into the action—painting was his craft, and he was introduced to many like-minded and prominent artists connected less by a central style or philosophy of art, and more by the simple, unifying need to create space for artists to flourish. Though his role initially involved construction, his proclivity to absorb was evident to the artists around him. Nakashima was among them, recalling: “He didn’t say much. He just inquired about things. He asked questions constantly. Even though he didn’t have an academic background in art, or art philosophy, or things of that ilk, he understood pretty much everything I said. He was educated in a different way, outside of the mainstream.”

Wendy Ross also stated: “He seeks out people. He seeks out possible friends and resources. He builds. He salvages. He reconstitutes. He’s resourceful. He’s adaptable. That’s a true artist.” In D.C., Honig worked in the crew that transformed and repurposed the unused Civil War-era Eckington Schoolhouse and also worked on rebuilding a burned-out box factory into King’s Court Art Studios. Honig was an original member of the Mohawk Condominiums, an abandoned apartment-building-turned-drug-shooting-gallery. Using the construction and architectural skills he sharpened over his career, and with the other owners, they restored the building into nine individually custom designed multi-level lofts. The preservative nature of rehabilitating these historic structures underscored Honig’s notion of reusing and adapting materials with modern intention.

Among Honig’s formal paintings on display these days at the Mohawk are a series of large powerful, technical works that indicate how Honig’s thinking has evolved, and how the adoption of social media and information technology can become an unexpected accompaniment to design. Marrying the utilitarian and aesthetic aspects of art, the series’ dense knots of black angles seen in works with evocative titles like Timeline and Atemporality actually function as QR barcodes, inviting the audience to simply scan with their smartphone and be transported to a digital plane that carries the viewer beyond merely observing the physical work.

In 1996, leaving the Mohawk seeking change, Gary and Peggi moved to the forest, returning to the natural surroundings of his youth—a retreat away from the concrete jungle of his downtown haunts. This change of scenery added to his artistic vocabulary, coalescing in a series of works aptly titled Four Seasons, in which Honig arranges the seasons like a conductor, orchestrating the progression of colors in a repetitive cycle that could begin or end with any one of the paintings.

Recent years find Honig continually pushing boundaries. Terre Magique de L’enfance merges the energy and gesture of his more involved paintings with the precision of his minimal works. Finding confidence in his work he continuously expands his horizons.

Notes Barbie Coleman: “With Gary’s love of art history and the great artists of the world, his masterful painting techniques allow him to freely break all the rules and follow his own playful inclinations and experimentations, offering us truly original works that individually deserve attention, as well as a vastly broader fan base.” While Honig employs drips, dashes, and splashes, his artistic technique “is uniquely his own, offering deeper understanding and appreciation as one delves into the juxtaposition of his deft movements and lavish colorations,” she says.

What art critic Irving Sandler said about Joan Mitchell applies to Honig: “If nature supplies the raw material, the artist then sifts it through memory to convert it to the essential matter of their art. Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images, becomes their creative domain.”

Mark Walston
Clark Walston
January 2019

  • Mark Walston is an award-winning author, poet, playwright and historian whose work explores a wide range of American social, cultural and political issues.
  • Clark Walston is a Maryland-based writer and editor whose work examines the intersection of popular culture and mass communications.
  • Tom Nakashima was born in Seattle, Nakashima is The William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at Augusta State University. He is a painter/ printmaker who has exhibited internationally in over 30 solo shows. He has received many awards and fellowships, his work has been reviewed in leading arts publications. He is currently based in Floyd, VA.
  • Wendy Ross received her masters from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has over 35 years of experience working with municipal, state, and federal agencies as well as individual clients to create both private and publicly commissioned works of art. She is currently based in the Washington, DC area.
  • Barbara A. (Barbie) Coleman has a long career as a painter (with exhibits in the US, Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Brazil), designer, art collector, and an occasional art critic. Living in Washington D.C. she currently writes a daily music blog for where she is Creative Director.