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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Beauty in the banal: Exhibit celebrates painter who wrote the book on Midwest landscapes — and much more

An unfinished painting hangs on a white wall. The finished portion is on the left, with abstracted green and brown trees leading into a half-done tree in fall colors. the remainder is sketched out in graphite and colored pencils.
Doug Johnson
McLean County Arts Center
Harold Gregor's last work is an anchor point for an eclectic show at the McLean County Arts Center. More than 70 works include submissions from students and colleagues at Illinois State University. This final, unfinished, painting is an example of Gregor's "Vibrascape Series."

Through Aug. 26, 60 artists and more than 70 artworks are part of an eclectic exhibit at the McLean County Arts Center. At first, they may not appear to go together, but the pieces that make up “The Painter’s Pedagogy” all have a connection to Harold Gregor.

Gregor was a celebrated visual artist and longtime faculty member at Illinois State University whose students have enjoyed remarkable success. Gregor’s catalog and, by extension, that of his students, explores a wide range of approaches and mediums.

Variety is a theme that courses through the show that takes up the Brandt, Armstrong and Dolan galleries, and even spills into the lobby of the downtown Bloomington arts center.

Center executive director Doug Johnson, a painter and former student of Gregor himself, curated “The Painter’s Pedagogy." His suggestion for navigating the show is to begin in the Brandt Gallery, where, just to the left of the doors, is the last work Gregor created before his death in 2018.

Part of Gregor’s "Vibrascape Series," the abstracted, colorful landscape demonstrates the artist’s way of working. He moved left to right (similar to how many western cultures read), beginning with a pencil drawing on the canvas before filling in with paint.

“This was a series initiated by Dr. Gregor after he had fallen off a mountain in Italy and injured his right hand,” Johnson said. “He was painting these works initially with his left hand, so they are much looser and more gestural. He continued that series even after his hand healed.”

Johnson said the unfinished painting can be viewed as a metaphor for the whole exhibit. “The legacy of his unfinished work is demonstrated by this collection,” he said.

Before relocating to Bloomington in 1970, Gregor was primarily an abstract expressionist. “We see a few paintings here from students who have absorbed that,” Johnson said.

If Gregor is known for anything (other than his versatility), it is his affinity for landscapes, which he began painting in earnest after settling here. Indeed, Gregor has been called “Dean of the Landscape School,” and is credited with revolutionizing that technique for the modern era.

On the north wall of the Brandt Gallery is a landscape by Gerald Earley, whose numerous awards include Best in Show at Normal's Sugar Creek Arts Festival. Another is by James Whim, who has two paintings included in the collection. Whim studied with Gregor in the late 1970s and his artwork is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Art Institute of Chicago.

“That’s been a real treasure to have work of this quality in this exhibition, which normally you’d have to go to a major museum to see,” Johnson said.

Other landscapes are peppered throughout the galleries, each with its own bent and approach. Central Illinois posed challenges and advantages to Gregor and his students as they looked for interesting and beautiful things in what is perceived by many to be a boring, flat part of the country.

“Hopefully, we all find magic in the banal experience that we can make a connection to and expand beyond ourselves,” Johnson said. “Landscape is a vehicle for that. Exploring the delicacies of light and our magnificent Midwestern skies — all of those things are really important.”

One needn’t stop after viewing the landscapes; there are goodies around every corner of this immense show.

Be sure to take in works by Ken Holder, for example, including a whimsical painting of Holder and Gregor’s shared studio in downtown Bloomington — complete with a shirtless Holder leaning out of the window. The south wall of the Brandt Gallery is particularly chock full of heavy hitters from the art world. And be sure to glimpse the extraordinary statue by another Twin City artist, Nicolas Africano, in the center of that room: a cast white glass, gold-dusted bust and accompanying rose.

“The Painter’s Pedagogy” runs through Aug. 26 at the McLean County Arts Center in downtown Bloomington. Attendance is free and open to the public.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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