Traditions of Art and Science Reinvented in Gregory Block’s Experimental Still Lifes
In his exhibition of new oil paintings at Gallery 1261, the largely self-taught Gregory Block offers a lesson in the faceted possibilities of the still life. While Block focused his formal education on biology, he built his painterly skill on the side through extensive observation and experimentation. Now, at the age of 28, Block’s concentration has shifted to painting.
Animated by a scientist’s enthusiasm for micro and macro perspectives, the more than 20 works in the show depict everything from small objects to all-inclusive vistas. Like moving a telescope in and out of focus, Block’s canvases range from a tiny 8 by 10 inches to a massive 48 by 144 inches. Not only do the paintings engage a range of scale and subject, but also of different stylistic approaches to still life painting—photorealistic, metaphysical, and surrealistic.
Block’s largest canvases are also his most photorealistic. In both natural and interior scenes, he models forms so precisely that they might be mistaken for a photograph or a window into a sharpened alter world. The shiny surfaces of water and silver in Concerto in E (Spring) (2014)and Americana (2014)feel realistic enough to gaze into and expect a reflection.
Americana, and other similar works that portray cabinets of curiosity, introduce more esoteric elements to Block’s figurative pastiche. Employing the symbolic tradition of Vanitas championed by Dutch and Flemish masters like Rembrandt and Clara Peeters, Block incorporates macabre innuendo into his brimming arrangements of objects. Skulls, moldy books, and shattered glass allude to the promise of decay and, more potently, the fear of death.
Block’s smaller paintings hone in on sparse groupings and single items and further his engagement with the metaphysical and psychological power of objects, a pursuit pioneered and defined by Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi as Pittura Metafisica. By hovering seashells, books, and jars of pickles in undefined space or on decontextualized tabletops, Block edges his still lifes with a surreal quality. Here, Block’s object-subjects become more than something set on a shelf or happened upon in nature – they are talismans that serve as a reminder of how small impressions affect our overarching experience.