Tom Gregg has been working out of a shabby-chic space in the West Bottoms since 1994, long before the First Friday antiques crawl helped make peeling paint and calculated clutter marquee attractions. Friday, March 9, Gregg leads two tours through the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. His talks — at 6 and 7 p.m. — showcase works from the museum's collection that he finds inspiring. The event is part of the museum's Charlotte Street Artists' Walks. The Pitch visited Gregg's studio last month after he returned from Los Angeles, where his work is on exhibit through late March at the George Billis Gallery.
The Pitch: The bric-a-brac on your studio shelves appear in your still-life paintings. How did you acquire these objects, and why do you paint them?
Gregg: All of that stuff on the shelves in my studio is the result not only of painting still lifes for a long time but also of being a natural collector — although a collector of things that are interesting as opposed to valuable. Having such a large studio allows me to be rather indulgent. I can see something in a flea market, a yard sale, in a Dumpster, or by the side of the road, and if there is even a remote chance I might someday use it in a painting, I will hang onto it. ... No matter what the object is, I like it to be familiar, even generic, and somewhat iconic. I try not to analyze this part of the process too much. My choices are usually impulsive and intuitive.
Some of the subjects of your paintings — lemons, a glass of water — seem pretty straightforward. Others, like the knotted-up American flag, could be interpreted as having a deeper meaning. How much control over those interpretations do you try to keep as you arrange and paint the objects?
At this point in my work, there are two basic, though intertwined, lines of thought. In some of the works, such as the lemons with the glass of water, the inspiration is primarily formal in nature: how the yellow vibrates against the blue, how the roundness and repetition of the lemons play against the vertical climb of the water glass, how the reflection in the glass rhymes with the shadow cutting across the lemons, etc. In most cases, I can walk into the studio, look at the objects I have set up to paint and truly be in awe of how beautiful and even profound they seem to be, just sitting there on the table. This in and of itself is already a lot for me to try to fit into a painting.
The potential success of this endeavor can sometimes seem compromised by weighty subject matter that distracts from a more direct experience of the painting itself, so in this case, the more transparent or familiar the objects and the less attention they call to ideas outside of formal concerns, the better. ... The paintings with subjects such as the American flag share these same formal concerns but veer off in a slightly different direction. I have also painted grenades, handguns, Disney figurines, pharmaceuticals, and other objects with unavoidable and rather loaded associations. Part of the challenge in these is to seduce myself and the viewer into experiencing the painting, and therefore the objects, on a formal and aesthetic level, despite the fact that it is an image of a weapon or a tacky rubber Minnie Mouse toy. In the painting process, I have to find a way to see past these objects — because of the strong identity of the thing itself, the tendency is to stop there, at a cartoon sort of perception. ... I always believe they are just paintings. They don't mean anything outside of what the viewer brings to them, and I don't feel that I want to control or limit what the paintings give out or even that what I bring to them is necessarily what someone else should experience.