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Michael Gregory Paints the Isolation, Loneliness of the American West
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Friday, January 13, 2023
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

PAINTINGS BY MICHAEL GREGORY

Artist Michael Gregory was more interested in pyrotechnics as a 12-year-old. But when an incendiary device blew up in his face as he was packing it, forcing him to wear an eye patch for a few days, he switched to the safer pastime of painting.

That hobby, inspired by his Greek immigrant grandfather’s landscape painting, grew into a passion and an avocation, prompting him to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. And today Gregory’s photorealistic barns and silos set against vast landscapes of the American West appear in the public collections of such venues as Readers Digest in Pleasantville, N.Y., General Mills Corporation in Minneapolis, Minn., Microsoft Corporation in Seattle, Wash., and the Arthur Andersen World Headquarters in Chicago.

Gail Severn Gallery, 400 N. 1st Ave. in Ketchum, unveiled 14 new Michael Gregory paintings in Ketchum this month. The exhibition will run through January. The gallery has also placed two of his works in the current exhibition at Friedman Memorial Airport.

“Much of my work for the last two decades has revolved around my interest in the rural buildings that are scattered across the open range of our American heartland,” Gregory told admirers at the gallery last week. “The buildings are the significant features—their presence either overwhelming or being underwhelmed by the landscape. My interest in this architecture is its geometric structure punctuating the natural world.”

Gregory lives in the Hudson Valley in the Adirondacks of New York—what he calls Ground Zero for landscape artists. But he cut his teeth on the farmlands and ranches of California’s Central Valley as his family drove between his boyhood home in San Jose and Los Angeles. And what he saw left an impression.

Driving through the Midwest enroute to an art show in Kansas City further “blew” his mind.

“Something about the landscape clicked,” he said. “There would be nothing there. Then you’d see a house. Or you’d see a giant cathedral of a grain elevator. I had been doing still lifes at the time. But that trip inspired me to start taking road trips to take photos of buildings I found interesting.”

While most landscapes are horizontal, Gregory has often made some barns and silos the center focus of a vertical format. Presented thus, they almost look like faces staring the viewers in the face, the details of every 2-by-4 standing out.

Until recently, he painted in monochromatic tones. But his painting has become more colorful bit by bit—just take a look at the red hues of “Red Willow” currently hanging in Gail Severn Gallery.

Some of the more traditional horizontal paintings currently hanging at Gail Severn Gallery evoke thoughts of the Wood River Valley as they depict scenes of dark clouds gathering over snow-covered fields, reddish alpenglow on bare hillsides, dark green in the folds of mountain foothills emerging from winter.

He takes farmsteads that fascinate him and put them in landscapes that have enchanted him as he travels across Idaho, Montana, Nevada and California.

 

These areas really fascinate me. I wonder how did these people who lived here live these lives? They were tough,” he said.

“The stories these paintings tell are of their builders—the farmers and ranchers—and the lives they lived. They are part of our American story. Their grit and fortitude against impossible odds is our ethos and national myth. The ruins of the buildings that litter the land are the visual remains that tell this story. They are…the archaeological remains of the lives lived. I think they also reflect the sense of distance and isolation we’ve felt during this time of political upheaval and pandemic.”

One of Gregory’s new paintings feature cattle. But he has no intention of challenging Hailey artist Theodore Waddell, known for his many impressionistic paintings of cattle.

“I’ve never done one with cattle before,” Gregory said. “Cattle, people—I’ve just never included them before. Maybe I’m evolving.”

Gregory’s work is informed by the music of Bob Dylan and others he listens to as he paints. It’s also informed by poets such as T.S. Eliot and other mid-century poets whose writing was very visual.

Gregory is also a student of art history, possessing the broadest knowledge of art history of any of the gallery’s artists, noted Gail Severn. The group of paintings hanging in Gail Severn Gallery rekindled an interest Gregory had in 18th and 19th century landscape paintings.

“I realize these paintings of barns and houses are the Americanized versions of the castles and follies that populate those earlier works,” he said. “The romantic movement idealized the human spirit and longing for place in nature, a reaction to the perceived sterility of the Enlightenment.

“These works have a similar subject. Their formal geometry bridges the gap between the romantic and modernist vision. I’ve also taken inspiration form the Precisionist movement in the early part of the 20th century While these artists were intent on creating a new paradigm, reality suggests that we have not changed. Humanity’s strengths and frailties are the warp and weft of our world.”

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