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Decades of Subversive Art : Guy Colwell

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The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights Bay Area artists who are doing incredible work, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place. 

Guy Colwell, Self Portrait. 1997.

Artist Name: Guy Colwell 
Born: Oakland CA, 1945
Exhibit: 111 Minna, Opening July 14

There’s a good chance you’ve seen Guy Colwell’s work over the years in the Bay Area, he’s been publishing, printing, painting, and illustrating life in the Bay and beyond for 6 decades.

After an 18-month stint in federal prison for refusing the Vietnam War draft, Colwell lived and worked as a painter in the Haight-Ashbury and Fillmore neighborhoods illustrating for underground papers and comics in the early 1970s.  A scene also made famous by the likes of Rober Crumb, Rory Hayes, or any number of comic illustrators that flocked to San Francisco in that period to make subversive art.

Colwell’s work touches on race, sex, drugs, nightlife, street culture, inequality, politics, and poverty, that’s been happening all around him, in the Bay Area and beyond.


Guy Colwell Inner City Romance comic, 1977.

This interview with Guy Colwell was facilitated by Michelle Delaney, the owner of 111 Minna, the storied gallery and event space that is also hosting Colwell’s new exhibit this month.  We wrote the questions, and she asked the artist.  Anyway, here’s the interview:

BAS: Do you have any images of your work at the (underground paper) SF Good Times?
Colwell:  Equivalent to the Berkely Barb or the East Village Other. A commune that had been putting out the newspaper as its central mission and I joined it in 1971 and left in 1974. By then the paper had gone under. I did lots of illustrations for the paper and a lot of the handout layout and paste ups. All precomputer. You put the paper together by pasting the typeset and it was photographed and turned into a printing plate.

San Francisco has changed quite a bit over the years, do feel like your work has changed along with the city?
I moved out of SF in 1986. I live in Berkeley now, Berk has changed a bit more slowly than SF, but my art has stayed mostly the same. It is not necessarily my environment path that changed my art, it comes from within. I have always considered myself somewhat of a social realist. I have tended to do street scenes over and over again, especially when I was in SF. I have gotten tired of sticking with the same subject matter year after year so I have drifted into something more surrealistic in the last two year

Young Line. Oil on canvas. 1983. Entering a punk music venue in San Francisco.

“I have always considered myself somewhat of a social realist. I have tended to do street scenes over and over again, especially when I was in SF.”

Bread Line. Acrylic on canvas. 2008. 56″x 74″ Income inequality.

Abuse. Acrylic on canvas. 2004. Colwell’s controversial painting depicts the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. jailers while held in Abu Ghraib prison.

Are there any artists/illustrators in the Bay Area you think people should be paying attention to?
I like James Eddy.  In general Micheal Kerbow


Why is there still a fascination with Hieronymus Bosch? What’s your fascination?
Going back to high school and even before I had gotten kind of fixated on the painting “Garden of earthly delights” found it totally fascinating. In 1974 I managed to get to Madrid to the Prado museum and was able to study the original that has been there for 300 years.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

It ruminated in my mind for many years until in the beginning of the 21st century when I was doing masterwork copies, I started to play with the idea of doing a full-scale copy of garden of earthly delights, but at the time I could not afford the Oak boards I would have needed to do it authentically so I gave up that idea and decided to do a graphic novel about the creation of the work. Based on as much historical fast as I could discover, I wrote a fictionalized script. The graphic novel is not finished, that project has been in progress for 8 years off and on. Its 162 pages long and will require another year of work before its promised publication by Fantagraphics Books.

Guy Colwell, Simple Pleasures Primal Terrors. 2022.

“Today, in my late 70’s I continue working on my spectrum of interests, doing what I have come to call Figurative Social Surrealism. This is sometimes straight ahead social commentary exploring issues of poverty and inequality in urban settings.”

What ideally, would your new series inspire in San Franciscans today?
Mostly I want to make people think about the real world as it is. I try not to make pictures that are just colorful for the living room wall. I consider them to be essays and commentaries. I believe an artist has as much of a duty to comment on the world and modern life as any sociologist, historian, journalist, politician. Their art should seek to inspire thoughts and even to shake people up a bit. So visitors to this show may find themselves discussing homelessness and pandemic and the relationship between human beings and the natural world. It will hopefully focus peoples thoughts on the current reality.

Guy Colwell’s New Show: Simple Pleasures Primal Terrors

Coming off the heels of a retrospective with 111 Minna Gallery entitled ‘Walking, Talking, Stalking’ – which chronicled his work from the ‘90s to 2018 – Bay Area native and prolific artist Guy Colwell is back with a brand new series of paintings. Colwell’s ‘Simple Pleasures Primal Terrors‘ highlights society’s twisted inner workings and the human form throughout the Anthropocene in his signature surreal style.


  • Opening Reception Thursday 7/14/22 from 5:00 PM – 11:00 PM

  • Open By Appointment Fridays 7/15/22 – 8/10/22  – reach out

  • Closing Reception Thursday 8/11/22 from 5:00 PM – 11:00 PM

Where: 111 Minna Gallery at 111 Minna St, San Francisco, CA 94105

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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