New York

Gregory Gillespie

Do you think that during the 15th century art critics went around saying, “He was born 15 years too early”? I don’t either. But there are painters today who, if they were just starting to do now what they were doing 15 years ago, would be riding high on the fame bandwagon.

Gregory Gillespie is famous but he is grossly under-famous. That’s what happens when you go so much against the grain. Then again, the grain has a way of catching up, especially to talents that ignore it completely and hang in there.

Gillespie had many things on display here, in different media and different modes. I am particularly in love with his funky-Renaissance-maestro mode, exemplified by Myself Painting a Self-Portrait, 1980–81. This is a great painting of flesh—the blue veins under white forearm skin are startlingly real, and the realism is accentuated by the trompe l’oeil splatter of aqua paint on the skin’s surface. The nipple is an essential nipple. The hands are perfectly reddish—painterly dishpan hands: Virtuoso realism is combined with a sort of Carlo Crivelli/Beatnik iconography painted, pasted, and taped on wood; pears are mingled with figurines and Japanese erotica.

Elsewhere Gillespie is a cubist cartoonist. Balanced Figure in Motion, 1983, is a savage pink geometry demon, a breasted baby with egg appendages and scientifically disrupted design. Maybe another of Gillespie’s fame problems is an embarrassment of riches in styles. Wyndham Lewis once called Picasso a performer in that his virtuosity led him to try his hand at everything that appealed to him. That’s Gillespie—one man’s work looks like a fantastic group show. Gillespie is too good for his own good because he lacks signature style. He can do anything, so he does. That’s great.

Gillespie’s earlier work is often disturbing, if disturbingly beautiful—Self-Portrait on Bed, 1973–74, for example (which is like reborn Masaccio painting to Lou Reed’s song “Waiting for My Man”), or the amputee erotica or the smiley drawing and quartering. There are innards and disruptions in the new work, but most of these are found in the Tantric/cubist cartoons and the slapstick psychedelic collages. Today’s Gillespie is less disturbing but just as tough and smart and amusing.

There is a witty serenity in Gillespie’s portraits and self-portraits, but his most remarkably out-of-character (out-of-reputation) paintings are his sublime landscapes, such as Two Trees, 1984, and Winter Landscape, 1982–83, which radiate preternatural order and perfect light.

Glenn O'Brien