Artist, Heal Thyself


A year after I moved back to Kansas City, I ran into one of my former art professors. He asked me what I was doing, was I still making art? I told him time had dictated that I choose between painting and writing and that I’d chosen the latter out of what I recognized as a more enduring love. “I still paint the occasional piece,” I said, then jokingly added, “but only as therapy.”

His hackles rose. “Never use ‘art’ and ‘therapy’ in the same sentence,” he snapped.

Though I could not relate to his lack of humor, I did at the time agree with him: Art was art, therapy was therapy, and ne’er the twain should meet. He and my other art pedagogues had taught me that elitist attitude, and I’d never once questioned it until I heard the defensive tone in his voice. In the ensuing ten years, I began to examine my own snobbery and the nature of art-making in relation to the nature of mind.

It’s true that art therapy places more emphasis on therapy than on art, which is viewed as a vehicle to heal psychological ills. But the fine art process also can be therapeutic, if for no other reason than that the artist who is not producing tends to go a little mad. My dilettante theory is that art provides validity and stability for the artist in a way other (pre)occupations don’t; thus, the artist creates to feed some existential deprivation. Where validity is neither required nor desired, the artist simply — or reluctantly — quits creating because the life of an artist can be a difficult one.

Ultimately the line between art and therapy is braided of both, and whether artists come into their work through therapy or art school is irrelevant. It’s the work that matters. Joe Gregory came to art through therapy, and his work will matter to anyone who appreciates paintings that suggest the erotic or forbidding dreamscape and that testify to art’s power of psychological redemption.

Five years ago Gregory was, in his words, “a hopeless, miserable human being who honestly thought of taking my life on a daily basis.” He suffered from severe depression and anxiety and spent three years seeking a cure through “clinics, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, medication and anything I could try on my own, from meditation to breathing exercises.” Then he stumbled upon a book about art as therapy. It saved his life. And it gave him a new career.

Pears for Apollo, Gregory’s first solo exhibition, consists of fifteen oil paintings primarily of pears. Big pears, sexy pears, sinister pears. Pears painted in mythical proportions but not-so-mythical roles. Take, for example, “Three Graces,” an oversized still life of three voluptuous pears lying down and snuggled against one another, bottoms exposed. There is no way to misinterpret the sexuality of this painting or the human qualities of the fruit. Their skins are rendered with the same luminous, erotic vitality displayed by such painters as Titian and Rubens, who celebrated the female body. The folds and crevices and curves reveal a kind of dizzying, visual orgy (one of Gregory’s paintings is actually titled “Orgy”) found in Freudian dreams. And the pears’ colossal size — some more than two feet tall — contributes to their resemblance of humans and the surreality of the space.

Gregory admits that “about 80 percent of my work is a sexual scene or at least of a sexual nature.” The other 20 percent — depicting pears as prominent elements in stark suburban settings — addresses issues of which Gregory may be less conscious. These are menacing paintings, arising from a darker place than the erotic works. They hint at fear and anger and the subjection of the weak and small. Here the pears seem to take on a masculine, aggressive presence, as in the suburban nightmare “The Bullies.”

Imagine a dark night, a bleak indigo sky and a long walk home down a street deeply shadowed by tall privacy hedges — not ordinary leafy privets but sharp-edged and impenetrable, as if made from chartreuse concrete. Behind them, illuminated not by the one useless streetlight but by some blinding source, loom the pears, only their phallic tops visible above the hedges. The street dead-ends at a gap in the hedges, where there is only darkness. Beyond the dark: an enormous white pear, a visual manifestation of oppressive silence. It is a fascinating painting, for it conjures both amusement at the absurdist anthropomorphism of Gregory’s pears and a familiar terror for anyone who ever was a child walking alone at night or has awakened from a feverish dream.

“The Bullies” hints at the seamier side of suburbia, as does “Incident in the English Garden.” Having originally titled the work “Come out, Come out Wherever You Are,” Gregory claims it to be “an innocent piece, just kids playing hide and seek, nothing sexual.” But the pear characters are cast in the same nightmare as in “The Bullies,” and, frankly, after one has viewed the artist’s sexual and voyeuristic works, the piece comes across as quite sexual — but in an opposite tone. The scene appears to be two “children” (small pears) involved in a sexual game (or a rape, which prompted gallery owner Tom Deatherage to suggest the new title), while the “adults” silently look on from behind the safety of their bulwark hedges. Because of Gregory’s strange palette of lime-green and cement-gray and indigo, the fleshiness of his pears and the horrifying stillness evoked by the composition, it is difficult to read this painting any way but as an indictment of suburbia, where Gregory grew up. Other paintings, such as “It’s Good to Be King” and “K.K.K.” also may attest to darker issues Gregory has stumbled into through Psyche’s door.

In this day of poststructuralism and post-post-modernism and post-post-post-whatever, does it matter if Gregory’s paintings come from a place he himself has not yet discovered? That’s a rhetorical question, for I know artists who cannot verbally articulate their fascinating work — and verbally articulate artists whose work is vapid. Where some “educated” art becomes so esoteric that its audience shrinks to only a handful of cognoscenti, the self-taught artist sometimes makes choices that are more directly communicable, for they arise from the unconscious. It’s what Gregory has not learned that makes his work so ripe.

Categories: A&E, Art