Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Gregory Gillespie, Chaim Gross, William Kentridge

Forum Gallery

Forum Gallery

Marian Goodman Gallery

Gregory Gillespie Self-Portrait with Bread and Chakras  1987-88 oil and alkyd on panel, 89 x 80 inches Courtesy Forum Gallery
Gregory Gillespie, Self-Portrait with Bread and Chakras 1987-88 oil and alkyd on panel, 89 x 80 inches Courtesy Forum Gallery

Not many contemporary artists came as close as Gregory Gillespie (1936-2000) to the virtuosic rendering of early Renaissance painting, and none took these talents in so unsettling a direction. The thirty-odd paintings at Forum Gallery span his career, highlighting the frantic variety of his work and its unique blend of delicate fantasy and raw provocation.

Early works have the jewel-like precision of van Eyck, though not quite the same gravity of color and space–and certainly not the same uplifting tone; several small, meticulous panels from the 60s depict raunchy sex scenes, while “Soccer Star” (1968) pictures an athlete who smiles obligingly as his abdomen splits open to reveal his entrails.

Mr. Gillespie went on to exploit a bewildering variety of subjects and techniques.  Celtic manuscript ornamentation, ceremonial Japanese costumes and Hindu tantric symbols appear, often in fantastical landscapes or eerie interiors. Many pieces are built up with thick applications of paint, sometimes sanded or scraped to reveal underlying layers; in others, real bits of wood and metal are combined with obsessively painted images of tiled walls and floors.

A rare tenderness prevails in the warmly smiling portrait, “My Aunt” (1988). More often, though, the artist seems determined to provoke. In “Bread Shrine” (1969) several tiny figures engage in obscure sex acts beneath a kind of industrial breadbox, on which the figure of Christ has been affixed like a decal. Was the artist hoping to expunge his strict Catholic upbringing? The passages of radiant, dainty modeling suggest something else—he’s intent on reclaiming the sacred for himself, by means of these luminous but mordantly disjointed images.

Presiding over the exhibition is the nearly eight-foot tall “Self-Portrait with Bread and Chakras” (1987-88). From an altar-like studio, the artist stares out dully, naked from the waist up and covered with emblems of mandalas and female genitalia. Behind him an ethereal Buddha competes with the carefully modeled forms of a telephone, hammer and visor. A darkly, closely worked panel attached below depicts what seems to be a disemboweled woman. Another panel, pure white, features a clock-like circle with knotted masses of paint for hands. Atop this sits a tiny, beautifully rendered female nude, exquisite in its detail and coloration, apparently cut out from another work—in fact, another world.

What does it all mean? Mr. Gillespie’s images rivet, but they refuse to edify the way van Eyck’s do. Clarification may be too much to ask of these memorable paintings—or from the artist’s feverish point of view, too little.

Chaim Gross Flying Trapeze on Ice 1958 bronze, Edition of 6, 14-1/2 x 15 x 11-1/ inches Courtesy Forum Gallery
Chaim Gross, Flying Trapeze on Ice 1958 bronze, Edition of 6, 14-1/2 x 15 x 11-1/ inches Courtesy Forum Gallery

One floor above, the exhibition in Forum Gallery’s fifth floor space could hardly differ more in spirit. Here the lifework of Chaim Gross (1904-1991) unfolds as an act of affirmation, his pleasure evident in nearly twenty sculptures of acrobats and mothers with children. These works include wood sculptures from his early years, as well as the bronzes he turned to after the mid50s.

In the diminutive “Vanity” (1941), the wood grain enthusiastically follows a female nude’s rounding hips, their surfaces flirtatiously polished. “Baby Balancing on Feet” (1950), a supple, curving pillar of cocobolo wood, entices in a different way; at the top, emerging from the quickening curves, there appears a placid face—a poignant note that startles all the more when one realizes it belongs to a baby, balanced on the sinuous form of the upside-down mother.

In several stone pieces, broad, Mayan-like faces emerge evocatively from masses of onyx and alabaster. Mr. Gross’s inventions are less inspired in some of the bronze pieces; the six-foot tall “Three Acrobats on a Unicycle” (1957) depicts another column of athletic figures, but its even, chunky pacing feels less buoyant, as if the first fanciful conception had bogged down in its incarnation.

But even if Mr. Gross’s bronzes don’t have the rhythmic heft of Lipchitz’s, their humor is infectious. They hum with what Smithsonian director Joshua Taylor aptly called an “unqualified, exuberant enjoyment of life.”

William Kentridge Preparing the Flute 2005 charcoal and pastel on paper, 31-1/2 x 47-1/4 inches Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge, Preparing the Flute 2005 charcoal and pastel on paper, 31-1/2 x 47-1/4 inches Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Many famous painters have designed theatre sets, but artist William Kentridge has gone a step further: he’s also directing the production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that premiered last year in Brussels and is now touring internationally.

A white South African, Mr. Kentridge had worked for many years in theatre and as a printmaker before gaining wide acclaim for his animation art in the 90s. The fifty pastel and charcoal drawings now at Marian Goodman served as the basis for “The Magic Flute’s” sets and animations.

Except for stray red marks, the drawings are executed completely in black pastel and charcoal. Rich tones, however, give a panoramic depth to backdrops of classical landscapes, some of them elaborated with Egyptian temples and astronomical diagrams. In smaller drawings of birds and cages, erasures demonstrate how these single sheets became the working arenas for animations. A model theatre about five feet wide handily shows the drawings at work. Illuminated by projections from the front and rear, the set comes alive with animations of dancing guardsmen, frolicking animals, and orbiting planets, all synchronized with portions of the opera’s soundtrack. Comets spiral and stream during the Queen of the Night’s climactic Act II aria.

Even without the benefit of color, this intimate mini-production charms. How does the full-size production look and sound? Opera-goers can see for themselves in April, 2007, when “The Magic Flute” comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Gillespie and Gross until February 25 (745 Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets, 212-355-4545).

Kentridge until February 25 (24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-977-7160).

A version of these reviews first appeared in the New York Sun, February 2, 2006