When I left Gregory Gillespie: rorschaching at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects on the Lower East Side, I decided to leave it alone. Gillespie’s art is like a pool of bright green antifreeze in a forest glade, something aberrant, lurid, and toxic, equal parts repellent and mesmerizing. It is also something that you can’t stop thinking about, at least not very easily.
Part of my resistance came from my familiarity with Gillespie’s early work, which possessed a consistency of vision that the late paintings, which make up the bulk of the current show, abandoned for an eclectic mix of Western verisimilitude, Eastern spirituality, and inscrutable symbolism — an inward turn that seemed to seal off points of contact with the outside world.
In contrast, Gillespie’s paintings of the 1960s and ’70s wedded acrid psychological disgorgements to an astonishing realist technique and the kind of formal geometry exploited by artists from Piero della Francesca to Balthus, resulting in images unparalleled in their squalid intensity, all the more potent for the artist’s obsessiveness and attention to detail.
Even a straightforward composition like “Still Life with Squash and Rutabagas” (1975) in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum — an uncannily realistic depiction of bulbous, hairy vegetables and a battered cardboard box on a heavy wooden table — is ripe with tumescence and tinged with filth. Dispensing entirely with modernist emotional distancing, Gillespie’s most effective works go well beyond a mere horror of the flesh; in his own private netherworld, any act of intimacy — incarnated in his sensual, exacting brushstrokes — is a step into the abyss.
Gillespie hanged himself in his studio in Belchertown, Massachusetts, on April 26, 2000. Much of the work in the Steven Harvey show dates from the year of his death, and it is impossible to look at it without seeking clues to his personal tragedy. There is one crazily violent image, “Meditating Double Woman” (n.d.), which departs from his customary realism in favor of brightly colored, sketchily rendered post-Cubist forms. The meditating woman is cleft down the middle, halving her head and exposing a mouthful of teeth, three pairs of triangular breasts and a heart bleeding into her belly.
But that painting is the outlier of the exhibition, which is otherwise divided between realist self-portraits and more stylized paintings rife with hermetic spiritual symbols. The disconnect between the two is pronounced, which gives you a sense of how doggedly Gillespie followed his own path: completely out of step with the Minimalist/Pop dichotomies of the ‘60s and ’70s (not to mention Chicago-style Imagism and various streams of political art), he made no attempt to reign in whatever warring impulses were splintering his artistic persona.
The increasing heterogeneity of his images and sources, which began in earnest around 1980, might reasonably lead us to speculate about his state of mind in the last two decades of his life. But he was fully aware of what he was doing, and saw his later work as part of a personal and artistic evolution.
In an interview from January 1999, a little more than a year before his death, published in the catalogue of a retrospective held at the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, he explains that his stylistically incongruent, collage-like images proceed from the same autobiographical impulse governing his work from the beginning:
My childhood was quite unusual — an unusual blend of having a crazy mother (institutionalized for the rest of her life when I was five years old) and a severely alcoholic father. […] I look around at the images I paint now and I see Catholicism, insanity, chaos, weirdness. It’s natural for me to create these images. It’s almost as if, since there was so much chaos in my childhood, my job as an artist is to make it beautiful, to give it back some order and stability, and to make a living from it. So my job is to turn the chaos and pain into art.
In this regard, Gillespie’s late paintings have much in common with, and to a certain extent prefigure, the content-driven, deeply personal work of such younger artists as Nicole Eisenman, Robert Gober, and Mike Kelley. And yet he also shares some of the materialist bias that turned members of his own generation toward Minimalism and other reductivist pursuits:
The images have meaning, sure, but the artist also speaks through the paint. When people look at paintings…it’s possible to forget…but one is basically just looking at paint on wood.
This formal imperative would lead to the near-abstraction of a painting like “Yin Yang” (1995), though his explorations of his medium were generally far more complex, incorporating oil paints, acrylics, waxes and gels, often over photographic sources. Gillespie worked on pieces for years, sometimes going back to one that he considered finished and redoing it, and at one point cutting a panel in half to make two paintings out of it.
The tenacity and complexity of his material approach is reflected in such collage-like compositions as “Mandala with Shears” (1996) and many other stream-of-consciousness compilations of associative imagery. However, in terms of continuity, it should be noted that the pictures-within-pictures that appear in much of the late work were also present in the preceding decades, only in a more subsumed form.
Perhaps the most disturbing paintings in the show are the ones that relinquish multifarious imagery and instead present the artist in unadorned self-portraits. Gillespie has done dozens over the years, particularly in the early decades, where his face is often expressionless, staring straight at the viewer. In the two examples here, “Self Portrait with Paisley Shirt” (1999-2000) and “Self Portrait Triumphant, 2” (2000), he is looking slightly off to the side and affecting a smile — in the latter picture, a full-length seated portrait with a bare chest, his arms are raised as if celebrating a touchdown in front of a TV.
That these two grinning portraits — one self-described as “triumphant” (and the other decked out in an unspeakably awful green, orange and white paisley shirt) — were completed the year he took his own life lends them an almost unbearably melancholy edge. The disjunction between their apparently willful good cheer and the descent that followed would seem to embody Gillespie’s professed themes of “insanity, chaos, weirdness,” compounded by compositions that feel deliberately ungainly, unvarnished and disconcertingly real. After forty years of turning “chaos and pain into art,” Gillespie confronts us with an artist slipping from sight.
Gregory Gillespie: rorschaching continues at Stephen Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 15.