There was a time, long ago, when “art” was thought to “progress” and nobody wanted to be behind the times. There were art “movements” and if you weren’t riding the tide, you weren’t taken all that seriously. Nowadays, the fog of art progress has long parted and we can savor the idiosyncratic nooks and crannies of individual artists. Now, along with wondering why some artists do work that is so “far out,” we can calm down and wonder why some artists find satisfaction in doing work that celebrates and renews old themes.
Take Morgan Walker who has a small show at the Augen Gallery right now. His paintings and drawings look downright conservative. We see figures in landscapes. The paint has the scumbled feel and the muted color of the Barbizon School of 150 years ago. They just feel “traditional.” Then you look at what’s going on and feel unsettled. Something just isn’t quite right.
Endless Summer, 2015, is a small (20 x 26 inches) landscape that made me think of Corot—a flat grassy field in the foreground, a line of slender trees along a horizontal fence line, more field beyond and a small mountain in the distance. But then there are three more things in the mid-foreground: a small campfire-sized flame, a pig, and a woman dancing. The woman, pig and fire are small in relation to the overall scene, and they are hazily painted. We have an “impression” of them in this impressionistic landscape.
What is the story here? Is there a story here? They seem like an unlikely apparition. The fire seems dangerous in a grassy field and the woman seems to be dancing, though she could be waving “hello” to someone outside the scene. The pig seems to be slowly lumbering forward. Do we have beauty/beast/danger? Or maybe we have an artist thinking, “OK, a woman dancing by a fire—what if I threw a pig in there?”
In Visitor, 2016, there is a sweet landscape of fields, hills and a small tree—and a woman, a watermelon, a goat, and a fish lying on a patch of grass. In 19th century landscape painting usually some tiny figure (or figures) gives scale and a sense of the insignificance of humanity among the grand works of nature. For Walker the foil against nature is capricious—“Eh, let’s throw in a watermelon.” Or, to recall the idea of the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse): “Beautiful… as the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” In Walker’s works, these little oddities provide the jab of meaning that takes a “nice” landscape and prods us to really give attention.
Next door at the Froelick Gallery, we have a fortuitous exhibition of small paintings by Paul Green from the 1990s, from the estate of an astute collector. Evidently Green ceased painting a while ago, which is unfortunate for us. While Walker’s style recalls the 19th century, Green’s has the feeling of the 15th. The paintings are small, painted with early Renaissance clarity and flatness, with a tiny brush, and they have an air of mystery.
In Renaissance paintings, especially religious paintings, things are happening that nowadays we often don’t understand and depicted objects are symbols that are now obscure.
Similar obscurities occur in Green’s paintings (and he uses some symbols from painting history: white lily, say, or pink carnation). For example, in Home, a big shirtless man stands in a hole in the ground and releases a bird from a slit in his chest. In Porcelain, a man holds a female porcelain doll and delicately raises her arm to touch his cheek. In Salve, a large bare-breasted woman holds a small man and licks his forehead. These scenes are immediately strange. Something’s happening here and what it is is exactly clear—why it is happening is not clear.
In Lure, 1994, we see what looks like a sleeping man. He is shirtless, with relaxed hands on his abdomen. His head and torso are angled up from a dented pillow. Is he in the middle of rising or reclining? That’s important—because of the fishhook piercing his forehead and the slack line connecting it somewhere above, beyond the picture. Is he rising to slacken the line? Is he really asleep and about to fall back and then feel the jerk of the hook? His pillow seems to have been dented by his head, but there isn’t enough slack in the line to allow that. Maybe this is torture, but the man seems to sleep through it.
What does this painting mean? I’m reminded of Aaron Copland’s statement: “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No’.” (From What to Listen for in Music.)
While Walker and Green have made works that have traditional art historical style references, Gregory Grenon’s paintings at Laura Russo are another kind of familiar-yet-different. These are not quiet understated paintings. They are bold colorful people painted in reverse on glass. They seem like people you might know. They are portrait-like, but painted “expressionistically.” Eyes are big, lips are plump, ears tend to be simple thick C-shapes. Strong outlines tie everything together.
The familiar format of the portrait painting allows Grenon to explore a kind of pictorial imagination different from the subject imagination of Walker and Green. The figures and their of clothing can provide a fundamental format so Grenon can explore color and shape. Edgar Degas said, “They call me the painter of dancers. They don’t understand that the dancer has been for me a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and for rendering movement.” The color is the key to making these paintings be more than caricature. Look at the choices of blue-greens in the background a skirt in What I Shouted, 2016.
Grenon paints his frames. They become integral to the paintings. Many artists paint their frames, but usually that painting is just decorative. In Grenon’s works, the color of the frame is usually essential to making the rest of the color in the painting work. In I Won’t Be Wronged, 2015, the brilliant orange frame contains a thin blue line along its inner edge, the complementary color heightening the brilliance of the orange. The frame glows around the black background of this portrait.
Writing about Grenon’s work 30 years ago, I said, “But his main strength for me is color, whether it is brilliant or grayed. Traveling over a cheek or under an eyebrow in one of these faces you can find the most surprising juxtapositions of color. There are oceans of subtlety within the borders of these faces. The face is the constant and everything else changes.” He’s still at it. I don’t think he’s stuck in his motif, but utilizes it the way Morandi explored the simple still life or Rothko explored the possibilities of color and nuanced edges of floating rectangles for decades.
These shows are reminders that something slightly new can be embedded within what seems like the “same old stuff.”
Morgan Walker shows at Augen, 716 NW Davis St., with new paintings by Matt Cosby, through April 30.
Paul Green shows at Froelick Gallery, 714 NW Davis St. through April 28.
Gregory Grenon shows at Laura Russo Gallery, 805 NW 21st Ave., with selected works by Jay Backstrand, through April 30.