San Francisco

Michael Gregory

Berggruen Gallery | San Francisco

The first paintings Michael Gregory showed five years ago were large, squarish oils on canvas showing haystacks, bushes, and fallen trees set forward in open fields. Mysteriously engulfed by flames or left smoldering in the aftermath of some intensely localized apocalypse, the natural objects in them seemed to sputter in a dialect of irritably debased pastorale at the outer limits of contemporary experience. In his new pictures (all of them from 1988), Gregory has pulled back for more general, though no less cryptic, views of the same allegorical “elsewhere” terrain. Now he paints long, horizontal panoramas, with varnished tar and chiaroscuro glazes over plywood panels prepared with gessoed cotton fabric—an antiquarian technique that lends a further déjà-vu eeriness to the proceedings. Each prospect is shot with sunlight from behind layers of cumulus. The obfuscating effect is bewildering: preternatural revelation surges across the fields, the glimmering trees, the mud flats—but who’s to read it? Instead of a decipherable comfort, the ripeness of unassimilated nature stands loaded with moot intimations of deprivation and fear.

Within his consuming ambient blur, Gregory accounts for human presence reductively. In As If Twelve Princes Sat Before a King, a trumpeting sunset spans the pale slip of industrial beadwork that dots the far rim of a bay, as viewed from a seemingly molten tidal estuary. The diminished focal points intensify distance in every direction. The steel-wool clouds, incinerated in black and red, coruscate against each other and the dabs of sun. That meager horizontal rim where the eye ekes out its bearings is, as Gregory has said, “where we live.”

Max Friedlander once identified the pictorially low horizon as “always and everywhere a sign of advanced contemplation of nature.” Gregory’s horizon lines are like nerve ganglia contemplating nature’s otherness while immersed in its repercussions. They’re seismographic. Much as they rationalize space, they can derange the sense of time within the space of a single painting. In Deviant Fall, for instance, the opposite sides of a meadow are marked by two trees, one flowering and the other with reddened leaves—separate seasons embodied by flashes of tonal adjustment in an unbroken vista.

Gregory is no ironist ringing changes on a historically lapsed Romantic vision. He could be the genuine article, a latter-day initiate to Keats’ “penetralium of mystery,” trying to locate an arcane refulgence that culturally can’t be parsed. His subject is nature as an excess that defies any concept of necessity. It is neither a picturesque garden nor an innocent victim of human management. It is not an art object. Those Barbizonian oversaturated greens, that low-lying, late-afternoon haze echoing George Inness at his most recondite—finally, such dusty stylistic resemblances don’t compute at all; they cancel out. Gregory is an original. His studio inventions—all views, after all, are imaginary or partially recalled from actual sites—bespeak moods specific to an inscape where, as Boris Pasternak said, “things smack of soil and Fate.”

Bill Berkson