One evening during his first year at James Madison University in Virginia, Dolan Geiman was sitting on the floor doing a self-portrait assignment when a fellow student came in. “He was drinking a 40, singing, pretty wasted. I think he was reciting poetry. He came over and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? That’s not a fucking self-portrait, that’s just paint. Didn’t you come from a farm where there was always a lot of shit laying around? You need to fucking use that stuff.’ And he took a whole trash can and dumped the contents onto the painting and handed me a roll of clear packaging tape and a roll of wire and said, ‘Tie all that shit down and that’s your piece.’ I did–but I added a few other elements to tighten it up a bit.”

Geiman was pretty unsophisticated about art when he arrived at college in 1996–the only famous artist he’d heard of was Picasso, and he had no idea what his work was like. And Geiman did grow up on a farm in Virginia. But he had a collagist’s sensibility from an early age. When he was a kid his family didn’t own a TV, and he and his brother spent most of their time outdoors. “In the creek on our property we built little dams and piled rocks into cairns. We found spear points, pieces of crockery, and chunks of Civil War guns. Our house had been a Civil War hospital–we found a lot of bullets and would clean them and save them, putting them in one of our six or seven junk drawers along with tools and rope.” In high school Geiman started making collages out of materials he’d collected; he also made his own clothes by cutting up old ones and combining them–for example, a three-piece suit over the top half of a woman’s dress. He mined abandoned buildings for materials, as he does today–some to incorporate in his work, some to use as inspiration. On a trip home from college his mom, also an artist, showed him a jacket he’d worn at age four: the pocket held a couple kernels of corn, a rock, a piece of an arrowhead, a square nail. He reached into the pocket of the jacket he was wearing and found a rubber band, a couple of nails, a piece of rock, a dead katydid.

Geiman, who now lives in Chicago, not only paints and makes collages but designs clothing and interiors. His Gumball Billboard, one of seven paintings at Judy Saslow as part of “Scene in Chicago,” was inspired in part by a sign he saw in rural Illinois advertising ice cream, fireworks, and gum balls; its color scheme came from a nearby carnival. But he took the woman’s face in the picture from a Japanese magazine he found, and part of the background pattern from a 19th-century silver dollar. Attached to the painting is a shelf. This idea came from an interior-design client who admired his paintings but said, “I wish those things were more functional.” Geiman says, “That pissed me off, so I started making paintings with shelves so that people could add things.” The gallery thought the empty shelf would be confusing, however, so he added cow bones.

Reading an interview with Cy Twombly, whose art is full of cultural references, Geiman got inspired. “I was like, shit, I can make paintings with Italian phrases.” Hence the title Le Trievsa II, which he says is a mix of fake French and fake Italian. He started with a collage of small pieces of found paper he combined and cut into the shape of a girl. He sanded it down to abrade the surface, made an enlarged black-and-white photocopy, used that to make silk screen stencils, and silk-screened the figure in different colors on wood. For his clothing line (sold at Habit) Geiman sews patches silk-screened with his own designs, both abstract and figurative, onto clothes he finds or that clients bring in. “I like to have a lot of tools in my tool belt,” he says.

Dolan Geiman

When: Through Fri 12/30

Where: Judy A. Saslow, 300 W. Superior

Info: 312-943-0530

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Fred Camper.