In Self-Portrait on Bed, made in 1973-74, Gregory Gillespie paints himself as a not-quite young man, some years older than I am as I write this. He sits on a mattress that sags toward the floor. Around the time I finally saw this painting in person at the Fogg Art Museum in the spring of 2004, my sleeping arrangements resembled those in the painting, perhaps slightly worse: a mattress with no bed frame in a spacious walk-in closet in my attic studio in Philadelphia. My paintings bore a strong family resemblance to his, and I carried my Hirschhorn Museum retrospective catalog all over the apartment so I could keep my family close.
I first encountered Gillespie’s work as an undergrad. The Kansas City Art Institute had only one catalog, ten pages long, that I xeroxed and still keep in a manila folder along with other clippings of his work. His paintings made me feel as if observation, honed to the nth power, opened visionary possibilities. I saw the clear imagery of his paintings of strange vegetables, portraits of friends, and close-ups of the ground as containing something unconscious as well. He even talked about his process as “rorschaching” into the paint. This feeling in his work reminded me of the movement in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when the camera careens from the technicolor suburb, down through the green grass, into an underbelly of writhing black beetle bodies.
When I saw Self-Portrait on Bed in person in the Cambridge show, I immediately walked up close to it. As I approached, the painting switched from comprehensive illusion to a fragmented material world. Some of the paint Gillespie allowed to act as itself—the painted palette in the corner, caked with dimensional globs—but most of it took on various degrees of illusion. The skin on his left knee, I remember, was beyond photographic realism. As though he was building a living body, he recreated the translucence of the flesh in individual glaze layers. I had read that when he painted skin he used a dentist’s magnifying lens and a fluorescent light to depict the individual pores and, in that particular painting, I looked at all of them.
His technique with oils and Magna came out of trying to replicate Carlo Crivelli’s egg tempera method. This always made sense to me both in the minutia that Crivelli’s cross-hatching enabled, but also because those Renaissance panel paintings frequently included material juxtapositions: elements sculpted in relief beside painstakingly replicated, trompe l’oeil painting. As I scanned the surface of Self-Portrait on Bed, I found the wood floor moved from painted wood to a collaged laminate (I picture Gillespie carefully removing the contact paper lining the kitchen drawers). He ruled the wire screen into the door with a pencil as though he were weaving the mesh instead of depicting it, while the painted pear on the windowsill seemed cut and pasted from a Crivelli, or another Italian painter Gillespie obsessed over during the years he lived in Florence and Rome. Revealed only up close, the material moves implied a shifting attention both for the artist and in the viewer’s perception of the scene.
I remember visiting a friend’s apartment when I lived in Kansas City and sitting on her bed (also a mattress on the floor). While we talked, I scanned the room—from a piece of driftwood, to a family photo, to a friend’s print. Entering Gillespie’s room suggested the same fragmentary sense of a self, made from many past moments and the more I looked at this image, the further away that initial cohesive illusion seemed to me. If he was family, he was as complex and hard to know as a parent can be.
I think a lot about my father when I’m making my work—some of my painting-collages deal directly with events from his life—and Gillespie’s 70s-look reminds me of him. In pictures from that time, my dad frequently appeared in similar, surprisingly short, jean cut-offs with a range of scruffy facial hair. I have a picture of him from this time propping himself against a highway patrol sign as though a Kansas tornado were about to blow him away. In 1974, when Gillespie’s painting was newly finished, my father was dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of having been stabbed in the heart and nearly killed in 1970. Looking at the vulnerability of the Gillespie self-portrait, I think of my father. When I see the generous and playful way the context for his vulnerability is painted, I think of this photo, my dad clowning around for the camera, just a few years after he was hurt.
About four years before the show in Cambridge, Gillespie died of an apparent suicide. His death upset me almost as though we had known each other. I had imagined meeting him often. On more than one occasion, while talking to myself in the studio, I had told him all kinds of things—what I had found rorschaching into my own paintings; how our studio ceiling leaked, but you could make that mattress like new with Febreze!; how important his work was to me. Perhaps it also reminded me of my father’s close call.
Seeing Gillespie’s works in person thrilled me, but also left me longing. His gaze in Self-Portrait on Bed seemed to look two ways at once, down to my left and right past me, far into the distance. This doubling mirrored the split between image and fragment that I experienced when I first approached the piece. I can imagine the world that this version of Gillespie sees and I can perceive the many facets of his space, each with its own sense of time. In the painting’s fragmented world, he is at once past and present—a memory embodied.
Lerner, Abram, Gregory Gillespie. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977. Print.
Stebbins, Jr. Theodore E. & Susan Ricci Stebbins, Life as Art: Paintings by Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie. Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 2003. Print.