In the early 1980s, the village of Johnson was still a sleepy backwater, despite having been home to a college, and its predecessor Johnson Normal School, for nearly two centuries. But, since the Vermont Studio Center was founded in 1984, the town has turned into something like a tiny Provincetown or Taos.
Johnson became an art colony thanks in large part to the efforts of VSC founder and president Jon Gregg. But his current solo exhibition at Johnson State College’s Julian Scott Memorial Gallery shows that he’s more than just an idea man. Gregg is also a masterful, visionary artist whose vigorous technical approach blurs the boundary between painting and drawing.
The 50 pieces in Gregg’s show, simply entitled “Recent Works on Paper,” are all oil stick with mixed media and — even more simply — untitled. But there’s nothing simplistic about the aesthetics of this exhibition. Themes unfold across Gregg’s magical yet often troubled vistas. Each piece, with framed dimensions of 22 by 30 inches, is alive with a welter of etched and gouged, scraffito-like lines. Each has a shallow picture plane, tensely balanced between surface plasticity and two-dimensional space. Each work is individually engaging, like a unique snapshot from a voluminous figurative cosmos into which Gregg has escorted his viewers. And each adheres to an old formalist diktat: “The anatomy of the picture is always more important than the anatomy of the subject.”
Narratives in Gregg’s world are abstract and only partially revealed. For example, horses may appear, but they’re no more significant than the chromatic harmonies in which they live. Technique drives the narrative; how Gregg creates images becomes part and parcel of what he is ostensibly depicting. Oil stick is a demanding medium — half drawing and half painting — that can easily devolve into mud if an artist digs into the materials too forcefully. Gregg’s vibrant colors attest to an uncommon degree of virtuosity. Like oil pastels on steroids, his works on paper can easily be called paintings rather than drawings.
Waves of color abstractly describe landscapes, teetering villages and interiors. These are populated by figures — silhouettes sketched using Gregg’s scratchy technical approach, which somehow convey moodiness. Jean Dubuffet’s works from the 1940s and art brut immediately come to mind. But Gregg’s figures are more delicately gestural than those sources. It’s also interesting to note that the scale of his figures — which often appear in small groups — stays consistent from piece to piece.
Refreshingly, Gregg is not precious with his medium. Splashes of the underlying gesso subtly frame the edges of his compositions. Smudges and fingerprints are all integral elements, perhaps left to emphasize the materiality of Gregg’s works. There is no illusion of total control. Like an astronomer peering into a solar system in formation, a viewer of these works can see that creation is a messy process. Order is not imposed but allowed to evolve.
Though he was trained as an architect, Gregg deconstructs his architectonic details to the point of primitiveness. His childlike facades become groups of jagged rectangles, like old Hollywood stage sets lacking interiors. In the pieces that include landscape elements, such as a high horizon line that Gregg often arrays with figures, hue and texture are the defining elements rather than atmosphere or linear perspective.
Only 25 years old, the Vermont Studio Center has annexed about half of the real estate in “downtown” Johnson. A steady stream of roughly 50 artists and writers from around the world continues to arrive each month to attend the center’s residencies. Gregg is surrounded by a fertile creative climate of his own design, and he uses that distinction well. Both his art and the visionary community he founded are manifestly splendid.