BOSTON — The late Massachusetts painter Gregory Gillespie was one of those outliers that the art world never knows what to do with. He took up realism at the height of Abstract Expressionism, but a realism so charged with psychological intensity, personal symbolism and hallucinatory weirdness that to call it realism didn’t fit quite right either.
His oil painting “Lady with Skull Necklace” (1996-99) in the show “Transfixed: Selected Works 1995 – 2000” at Gallery Naga (67 Newbury St., Boston, through Dec. 15) shows what he was up to. It’s a head-on portrait of a woman with her skin precisely rendered via lots of little red brushstrokes against a vivid green background, recalling the backgrounds of the German Renaissance master Hans Holbein the Younger. But this painting vibrates with the feeling that something’s not right—maybe it’s because her shoulders seem too big for her head, or that her skin seems to crawl, or that she appraises us with a cool, reptilian, alien stare.
“All my paintings, no matter how free the brush marks, are figurative,” Gillespie told The Boston Globe in 1999. “They tell stories. It’s an attempt at self-healing. I always use the content of my life in my paintings. It’s how I work on what’s going on.”
Gillespie, who took his own life in his Belchertown studio in 2000 at age 63, grew up in New Jersey. Two events of his youth deeply colored his outlook—he was raised a strict Roman Catholic, which steeped him in notions of sin and guilt and transcendence, and when he was 5 his mother was committed to a state mental hospital. He studied art at Cooper Union in New York and the San Francisco Art Institute. Then he moved to Italy from 1962 and imbibed the old European masters. His works often echo Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel or Italian Renaissance altars.
Gillespie mostly seems to be an outlier because the story of American art is still mainly told though the lens of New York. In 1970, he settled in western Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley, where geographical proximity might suggest a stylistic kinship with Boston Expressionists from Hyman Bloom to Henry Schwartz. But his hyper-real self-portraits, squirming landscapes, odd symbolic scenes, and Eastern mandalas fits more easily into the visionary “Abject Expressionism” that over the past century ran through the work of artists like German Expressionist Otto Dix, Chicagoan Ivan Albright and Los Angeles’ Llyn Foulkes.
“One can easily drop through the cracks if one is not part of a so-called movement. Yet being between the cracks is not a bad place to be, providing one can sell some paintings to make a living,” Gillespie wrote in the catalogue to his 1999 show at New York’s Forum Gallery.
“Transfixed” at Gallery Naga is a selection of 16 paintings from his last decade. A lot of them feel like leftovers, but there are glimpses of the Gillespie that can knock your socks off. “Greg and Peg” is a straight forwardly photo realist painting showing him hugging his second-wife (and now widow) as they both smile giddily. Across the bottom he’s written, “Happy Birthday Peggy—A Sign of My Love and Happiness—1993—Thank You.”
But most of the paintings are more weird. Gillespie builds up the paint, giving himself meaty red skin and etching a radiating sun into his forehead in his 1998 to ’99 “Self-Portrait with Yellow Background.” Naked ladies wander about a cockeyed porch in 1999’s “Manger Scene.” Gillespie teases our grasp of reality with a trompe-l’oeil optical illusion. One woman is crossed out by masking tape—which seems, in fact, to be paint masquerading as masking tape. In his 1995 painting, “English Landscape with Peggy,” bushes wind back and forth like wiggling intestines.
Gillespie’s best work is itchy and uncanny. He paints a reality that’s not necessarily our reality, but he depicts it so powerfully, so convincingly that his images seem, almost, to be alive.