Jesse Gillespie, Untitled 33, mixed media, 32 x 18 in.
Jesse Gillespie, Untitled 33, mixed media, 32 x 18 in.
At what point does realism become unreal? Can we still speak of representation if an artwork actually incorporates its subject? How much does beauty depend on recognition?

Questions like these pop up while wandering through Jesse Gillespie’s first show at Rockland’s Dowling Walsh Gallery. In basic terms, the artist mounts ordinary, found objects on panels and paints the entire piece with layers of acrylic medium and oil paint to achieve a very selective, muted palette. Most artists who work with found objects value them for their history. Gillespie erases that history, making the objects universal and timeless. The reliefs are also not assemblages, because they do not assemble several objects but use single ones only. Whatever the artist responds to must therefore lie in the objects themselves, not in juxtapositions or relationships.

The almost monochrome color together with a quasi-photographic close-up approach that uses only part of an object take the imagery far away from recognizability toward spare abstraction. Very few pieces still partake of the real world of things. The vast majority of reliefs, however, are the product of a highly sensitive response to what is given, coaxing out, emphasizing, augmenting what is already there — an object’s texture and shape, not its function — guided by a sophisticated sense of aesthetics and metaphysics.

Gillespie trained in painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and he still works strictly like a painter, even if his work takes the form of reliefs. Not only are the reliefs painted, their compositional layouts, which often include a horizon line, are those of two-dimensional paintings. These landscapes of detritus question any traditional concept of beauty. Woodgrain thus becomes an expansive succession of mountains and valleys of light and shadow. One relief (all works are numbered but untitled), containing the corner of a door, could be mistaken for a trompe l’oeil painting  and does bring to mind some of the work by Alan Magee, one of Gillespie’s early mentors. Clearly, the notion of realism too is being investigated here.

While not all of Gillespie’s reliefs are equally intriguing, many hold us captive for their formal qualities. Others are noted for their suggestiveness, not of narrative, which requires movement, a before and after, but of stillness, of a moment, a state of being. One relief incorporates a cut or “wound” that reveals sensitive underlayers, making it an icon of vulnerability. Pieces that include parts of broken windows strike us as icons of neglect and sadness. 

Gillespie’s works are the product of a magical transformation, even transfiguration. Not only are discarded things elevated to the level of art, there are definite suggestions of sacredness and reverence throughout the show.

The wooden, cruciform shape in Untitled 33 has been violated by staples, blue paint running down its length like blood spilled. Set against a patchwork of nocturnal hues, the piece is imbued with pathos. But to a certain extent it seems wrong to mine Gillespie’s pieces for suggestive associations. Most stand on their own with a powerful presence stripped of context, function, and local color.