Dave Gusmann, an artist with no formal or academic training, nonetheless has a firm grasp on the intent of abstract art, a style he has been working in since the early 1990s. Recent works -- his first on canvas -- will be shown at an exhibit opening tonight at Starlight Gallery.
Gusmann, 59, grew up in South Buffalo. Early exposure to the arts came from an aunt.
"She worked at UB -- she took me to galleries," he said recently. "The artists who stuck in my mind were the abstract guys, Pollock, Kline, de Kooning."
He was a "creative kid," from an early age; he wrote, and then drifted into making collages. But the artists he had seen at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery had a strong hold.
"I guess I got tired of gluing and pasting," said Gusmann, who is a Vietnam War veteran. "I began painting in 1987. I started with cheap enamel paint, on cardboard I picked up from work."
Gusmann drove a forklift for 28 years at the Buffalo China warehouse. He said that milieu afforded him the materials to paint.
"If I had worked in an office, I wouldn't have had access to all those off-beat surfaces -- cardboard, wood, glass, bulletin boards -- that I was able to pick up," he said.
Commencing his self-taught journey, he added: "I had picture books of Picasso and Francis Bacon, and I would try to copy them. I wasn't a very good drawer. I decided to go totally abstract."
He referred again to the masters in the field.
"I like the fact that Pollock and de Kooning were action painters, stream of consciousness," he said. "Sometimes, it's almost like you go into a trance: 'I know I did these paintings, but I don't have a recollection of it.' It takes you out to another place."
The response to his abstracts from friends and acquaintances were typical, asking him what he was representing, or what the paintings meant. The answer? His paintings are based on emotions and feeling, rather than material things.
"I used to tell people that I painted things that you couldn't see when you looked out the window," he said. "They mean whatever you want them to. That's what I like about abstract art."
As implied by his Starlight show's title, "Abstract Without Brushes," Gusmann takes a hands-on approach. ("Brushes didn't feel right," he said. "I liked the feeling of the paint in my hands.") He also emulates the greats in another way: he paints while on his knees, with the work flat on the floor.
"Maybe I got that [idea] from seeing pictures of Pollock," he said. "Easels didn't do it for me. I like the floor's hard resistance."
With encouragement from his girlfriend, Gusmann said, he started seeking some attention for his work. The sale of a few pieces from his first show, at Rust Belt Books about a year ago, afforded him the opportunity to buy his first real canvasses. But he still uses hobby- and hardware-store paints, and substances even further from standard art-store supplies, including motor oil.
"I couldn't afford fancy acrylics and oils," he said, "so I started experimenting with tempera, enamel. I liked the way certain things clashed, the kind of stuff that happens when you mix oil with paint. It's like throwing darts. If it sticks, you keep doing it; if not, you try something else.
"I've been painting for 20 years. I'm very excited about the Starlight show," Gusmann said. "I always wanted to be different. And I'm amazed at how well the stuff came out. It'll be great to see it hung in a real gallery."
WHAT: "Abstract Without Brushes"
WHEN: Opens with reception at 6 tonight and runs through March 13
WHERE: Starlight Studio and Gallery, 340 Delaware Ave.
INFO: 842-1525 or www.starlightstudio.org