“The Grandiose Concocted Plan”*
As an artist colleague recently confided to me, “It’s hard to think of Art Green’s painting without thinking of the man himself.” Indeed, when considering the facts of his life, they all seem self-evidently relevant. Green’s father was a civil engineer; his mother an Avon lady who also made quilts and loved growing flowers. Art Green left his home in Indiana to dutifully study industrial design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was sidetracked from this pursuit to study and make art. This development was inevitable because of the strong influence exerted by the Art Institute of Chicago, easily one of the finest art museums in the world. Its holdings consist of a vast array of art spanning ancient to contemporary times. The Modern collection is particularly dazzling, including most artists of consequence in the twentieth century. As a student, Green would daily have seen paintings by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Stuart Davis, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and Francis Picabia. At the quirkier end of the artistic spectrum, Green discovered the eerie paintings of Ivan Albright and even Grant Wood’s hilariously severe American Gothic.
In Chicago, Green also encountered other lasting influences such as (the Real) Chicago Blues and the tripped-out, nutty universe of counterculture comics. Everything led, in a sympathetic convergence of zaniness, to the banding together of a number of like-spirited individuals in 1966 for the purpose of exhibiting under the best name for an artist group ever, The Hairy Who. It was a special time when, according to group member Gladys Nilsson, they would meet “to get things done or decide things,” a purpose apparently greatly hindered by all the laughing that went on. As Nilsson recalls, one thing that especially made them laugh was “Art Green reading the phone book or muscle magazines with his melodious voice.”**
These and other details of Green’s biography are often repeated, seeming to inscribe his life with a sense of inevitability. And so it is with Green’s decision to leave Chicago to come to Canada. This move, however, was never meant to be permanent. It goes to show that, although events in our lives may seem causally motivated, consequences are not always what we expect. Green himself emphasizes this metaphorically in a favourite story of self-discovery involving the intricacies of optical perspective. As he recounts it, Green is sitting in his car, looking in the rear view mirror, when he notices a young girl with her mother advancing towards the car. The young girl suddenly runs ahead, but when she turns to look back at her mother whom she has left well behind, she cries out to her in alarm, “Mommy, Mommy, why have you become so small?”*** That young girl would have made a perfect viewer of Green’s paintings. Through her recognition of the inconsistency of experience, everything she knew ontologically shattered. And yet this very crisis would also have fortuitously led her to the inexplicable wonder of all things that are possible in the world.
At first glance, Art Green’s recent paintings seem as purposeful, self-evident and easily comprehensible as the formative years of his life. Lines and contours are executed with the greatest deliberateness, with a precision that is testimony to certainty. Iconographic subjects are presented as causally linked through their physical connection. In Cliffhanger, a woman’s finger balances a descending parachutist, whose parachute supports a pair of scissors and a scythe, which converge on the double-tipped tail of a jumping fish, whose mouth meets the point of a crescent moon. Otherwise, the various elements may seem unrelated. Even so, the finger can be said to be rudely pointing at, as much as improbably touching, its object. Elsewhere, one object supports another of the most unlikely kind, as the thin fabric of the parachute props up the sharply pointed scissors and scythe. Collectively, these links lead to an inexplicable extreme–the moon, which is as far away and mysterious as anything can be. From a particular point of view, the iconography may assume a sense of purpose. Ultimately however, the iconography in Green’s paintings does not require definitive symbolic interpretation; rather, what it calls for is a conventional working acquaintance with the world as it is randomly experienced. The interplay of Green’s iconographic lexicon functions like the familiar game of chance, “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Rock smashes scissors, but paper covers rock; paper covers rock, but scissors cut paper…. Pragmatically meaningful and interdependent, the objects have a function in relation to each other, even if not in the usual sense. Within the structure of the game, random chance is given meaning.
Green’s paintings encapsulate mind-boggling complexity at every turn. Nothing is self-evident. His technique may be painstakingly exact, but it is schematized rather than naturalistic. The silhouetted iconography is precisely articulated, but all indication of volume and mass is absent. Some iconography is used for its distinct identity, such as a finger, as opposed to the moon. Other elements, such as wood grain, stained glass, and camouflage, are represented as material substances embedded throughout the painting. This feature is peculiarly more akin to holography than photography, since it invites the apprehension of objects in spatial depth rather than a surface reading of multiple exposures. Just as the holograph is contingent on the movement of the viewer’s head, Green’s paintings are contingent on the movement of the viewer’s perceiving mind. Moreover, unlike the wood grain of Cubist collage, which emphasizes the surface of the picture plane, Green’s wood grain suggests a depth where representations become enmeshed. His works challenge the viewer to mentally separate the diverse subjects represented, while simultaneously integrating them into a cohesive whole–a looking within the paintings which leads to a comprehension of the moment of seeing itself.
* This title is adapted from an artist statement in the exhibition catalogue Developing a Theme, UW Arts Centre Gallery, University of Waterloo, 1987, in which Art Green makes reference to an artwork he produced in seventh grade.
** Nadel, Dan, “Hairy Who’s History of Hairy Who,” The Ganzfeld 3, Monday Morning, 2003, p.128.
*** Most recently recounted in his lecture What We Know vs. What We See, Elora Centre for the Arts, Dec ember 6, 2007.
Will Gorlitz is a Professor at the University of Guelph where he teaches drawing, painting and conducts graduate seminars. He has exhibited his artwork nationally and internationally in public and commercial galleries for 30 years. Gorlitz is represented by Birch Libralato in Toronto and has periodically exhibited at Galerie René Blouin in Montreal. A survey exhibition of his artwork with an accompanying book publication is being organized for national circulation by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery.
Art Green was born in Indiana, earned his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and immigrated to Canada in 1969. His work has since been the subject of 20 solo shows, and is included in many collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Institute of Chicago and Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst. He taught painting at the University of Waterloo for 29 years before retreating to his studio in 2006.