TAMPA — “I am my own happiness dealer,” said Gregory Siff as he spoke from the podium when he began his artist talk at the Tampa Museum of Art on Feb. 13.
For the Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based artist, painting has been a path to nirvana since he started doing it every day 10 years ago. He paints a code of symbols in “storyboards” to record his life’s journey, capturing emotions and memories and often incorporating images from childhood.
And for the month of February, he’s been laser-focused on completing a body of work while in residency at Tampa gallery Cass Contemporary, culminating with a solo exhibition, “Evidence of Life,” that opens Friday and remains on view through April.
“I’m doing new things in this show that I’ve never done that will be indicative of Tampa,” he said. “And everything is full of so much meaning. I want to leave as much of a mark as I can. That’s why I called the show ‘Evidence of Life.’”
Cass owners Jake and Cassie Greatens first discovered Siff’s work about seven years ago when they acquired one of his pieces for a collector. Over the years, Siff’s star had begun to rise in the L.A. contemporary art scene, and the Greatenses kept an eye on his career. He participated in the 2017 exhibition “Paint It Forward” at Cass.
Siff’s story is somewhat of an art world fairy tale. Having grown up in the theater, he had moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. He got some jobs, but it wasn’t the career he’d hoped for. He said that forced him to get creative. After meeting some artist friends, he committed himself to painting every day, a practice he maintains. He was eventually noticed by a gallery, and the owner became his manager.
Now his work is in prestigious collections and featured in publications including the New York Times and Interview magazine. He has also ventured into the world of high fashion, collaborating with Yves Saint Laurent on its Winter 2017-18 line, as well as other commercial partnerships.
“I’ve been rooting for Gregory from the get-go, just because personally he’s so genuine,” Jake Greatens said in a phone interview. “But it’s also his process that is genuine, like directly from his brain to the canvas.”
While Siff was never classically trained as an artist, he was exposed to art at a young age. He recalls his parents taking him to the famous New York City restaurant Mr. Chow, where Andy Warhol’s drawing of a hamburger puzzled him but was his first introduction to pop art. Other influences include Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, whose works he could see on the streets growing up.
During his residency, Siff has given talks at the Tampa Museum of Art and the University of Tampa. He also painted a 26-foot-tall mural on Tampa’s new co-working and event space Hyde House, his largest to date. He said he “has a lot of love here” between friends and the artists and collectors who have been dropping by the gallery to check out his progress.
“I always say he’s a triple threat,” Cassie Greatens said. “He’s got the talent, but he also has the passion. Everything’s organic and from the heart. And then he has the connectivity factor, which I think is huge for collectors.”
Tampa has offered Siff a few firsts. He had never spoken about his artistic process in a museum before the Tampa Museum of Art, and the residency itself is the longest one he has done. He said that the experience has given him the ability to focus and really stretch.
He brought one of his completed pieces to the museum, which he explained prior to his artist talk. It’s titled How Do You Tell a Girl She’s Beautiful? In this case, she is Tampa. He painted Tampa icons, including the minarets, grand oaks with Spanish moss and a rooster, symbolic of Ybor City, all dripping in watercolor, to give the impression of fleeting memories. He integrates his own personal symbols, like his father’s ring that he wears. There is a blending imagery of objects from the museum’s collection of antiquities with icons of the modern world, with emojis.
Siff said his intention is to combine genres of ancient and modern. His paintings are at once visions of the past, present and future.
“There’s power in the stories of the past and sometimes we’re so trying to be ahead of everything. If we look back to myth and legend, you can make meaning out of someone else’s meaning.”
IF YOU GO
Evidence of Life
Opens Friday, with a reception at 7 p.m. Free. 2722 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 839-7135. casscontemporary.com.