Gregory Gillespie

Nielsen Gallery

The 28 meticulously crafted paintings, drawings, and monotypes that comprise Gregory Gillespie’s recent exhibition reveal the artist’s obsession with detail, trompe l’oeil illusionism, and haunting devotional symbolism. The majority of the works, created with oil and alkyd acrylic on board, employ old master techniques to achieve realistic effects. The smooth surfaces and precise contours in pieces such as Godmother Shrine, 1990, Portrait of Itchy, 1988, and Manger Scene, 1987–88, suggest Northern Renaissance painting, while the complexity of imagery and unusual juxtaposition of objects in Landscape with Dancing Shiva, 1989–90, Wheel of Birth, 1990, and Pear and Demons, 1987–88, evoke a kind of New Age surrealism.

In Confirmation Shrine, 1990, Gillespie created a colossal trompe l’oeil altarpiece based on the wall of his studio, plastered with photographs, Xeroxes, other paintings, and actual objects. Below a coffered ceiling, an arched wall is dominated by illusionistic renderings of a shelf and bowl, the artist’s work hat and pants, a bust of a female nude, a landscape, a squash, and a tiny portrait of the young Gillespie in his confirmation outfit. The bare-breasted female nude with her lower body covered by a fantasy landscape based on Gillespie’s Belchertown, Massachusetts farmhouse, is his wife Peggy. A second arch, on the painting’s right-hand side, contains a trompe l’oeil photograph of Gillespie, clad only in shorts and hat, standing before an Indian stupa or shrine. The complex of still life elements also includes a phallus enmeshed in wire, paint-laden eyeglasses, the painter’s tools, an Indian statue, a phallic winter squash, an old boot, a Mexican mask, and a lively image of a dancing Shiva. The arch is decorated with transfers of Xeroxes of copulating figures from Indian miniatures. Even given its disparate components—its yin/yang dualities and esoteric symbolism Confirmation Piece coheres. The hanging-up of Gillespie’s painter’s uniform enshrines the ego itself in its attempt to spiritualize the basic sexual dilemma through art.

Gillespie is not bound to collaging surreal Freudian and Buddhist images. His love for earlier art is best exemplified in Manger Scene, 1987–88. This small (20-by-15 inches) painting is directly based on a 17th-century Mughal manuscript. Using a textbook illustration of Nafahat al-Uns: Poet and Dervish in Domestic Scene, 1603, a tiny painted page in the British Museum, Gillespie has created a lusciously textured manger scene reminiscent of a Bosch. He removed the white clothing of the Mughal handmaiden, transformed the sultan into a nude mother attending a thumb-sucking baby, and altered the architectural components of the original simple wooden dwelling. The grotesque replaces the reverential when Gillespie turns a family of chickens loose on a decaying cadaver and a ghostly female profile appears from the darkness of an open door.

Gillespie does more than make parodies of Eastern and Western art history and the secret techniques of the Old Masters. His canvases constitute artistic journeys into the recesses of his own psyche.

Francine A. Koslow