Mark Greenwold A Moment of True Feeling 1997 2007by John Yau
DC Moore Gallery | New York October 10 – November 10, 2007
Consisting of thirteen paintings, five studies, and sixteen related drawings, Mark Greenwold’s exhibition A Moment of True Feeling 1997 – 2007 is an in-depth retrospective of his paintings of the past decade, which is, coincidentally, the span of time since his last exhibition. This means that he finishes a little more than one painting a year, and it is easy to see why. His small, tight, luminous works on wood panels (the largest is less than two by three feet) are made up of innumerable, tiny brushstrokes of often complimentary colors, which, for the most part, read as distinct only if one scrutinizes the surface. From a distance, the brushstrokes melt, or nearly so, into oddly glowing, highly detailed interiors occupied by men, women, teenagers, fantastical creatures, intricate abstractions, and impossible occurrences, such as levitating bodies. The brushstrokes impart a weird optical buzz; it’s as if Pierre Renoir dreamed that he was Ivan Albright.
Greenwold is a highly precise but completely unflattering painter. The domestic world he explores consists of three to seven people posed more or less frontally in meticulously rendered rooms in which there are often doorways, mirrors, and various kinds of light. The rooms are derived from slick magazines devoted to fashionable living, while the figures are derived from photographs the artist took of his friends and family. The artist himself is often one of the characters; and he depicts himself alternately in dresses, naked except for socks and work boots, and in a red bathrobe with a red towel wrapped around his head like a turban (for all of his boldness, John Currin has certainly never bared himself this way). It is one thing to be a male painter who paints a creepily thin, nude woman, and quite another to paint yourself naked. We learn for instance that the artist has a hairy chest and a circumcised penis. Greenwold doesn’t resort to the familiar and tiresome macho (or are they just puerile?) tropes of exposing the Other. He is one of the only male realists or figurative artists in whose work the women and adolescents are as strong and emotionally complex as the men. For all the unique aspects of his paintings, Greenwold ends up being the opposite of what one might expect. He possesses many distinguishing quirks, but he has never settled into a style. By intention, everything doesn’t all fit neatly together in his paintings. He is the opposite of Alex Katz, for whom style is paramount, and who is also interested in domesticity and has deployed his family and friends as subjects. The other difference between Greenwold and Katz is that the former probes beneath the surface, and often reaches a place in his work where everything is menacing and skewed, while the latter confines himself to the surface, where all is cool, calm, and collected. Fifteen years younger than Katz, and now sixty-five, it seems to me that Greenwold merits the same serious consideration routinely awarded the older painter.
If other artists working in a highly comprehensive way, particular in the exploration of fantastical situations (Julie Heffernan or Scott Hess, for example), fall far short of Greenwold’s achievement, it’s because he is neither programmatic in what he does, nor is he interested in delivering messages to the viewer. For one thing, he isn’t just after images; he also can convey the nubby feel of a terrycloth bathrobe, the smoothness of patent leather shoes, the stiff curly hairs of a hirsute body, the soft spikiness of a cat’s fur, the fragility of insect wings and the hardness of their barbed legs. The combination of touch and sight is just one of the many disquieting pleasures his paintings offer. Despite his combinations of things both of this world and not of it, the paintings never devolve into any sort of literalism, metaphor, allegory, morality tale, social commentary, personal anecdote, or transcendent or uplifting moments. These scenes are loaded, but they are not—and this is especially true of the work of the past decade—stories. In fact, their resistance to assimilation is very much what they are about.
We assimilate in order to deny our own difference from others. Greenwold knows that he will be never be part of a larger order, either as an artist or as a human being, but also that he cannot escape being an artist or a member of a family. This tension between the one and the many is the live-wire coursing through his work, and is finally what distinguishes him from nearly all other realists. In exploring this tension, the artist investigates that side of individuality that society and our desire for survival tends to repress, our deep-seated anarchic impulses. If I have a problem with his work, and it is a small one, it is the sarcasm that seems present in varying degrees in every painting. Sometimes, it is sharp and disquieting, but other times it seems slightly defensive, a reflex action.
The interactions that Greenwold establishes in his painting convey his strong narrative impulse, as well as an understanding that domesticity is fraught with apprehension. His paintings evoke, but do not spell out in any reductive way, hot-button issues such as the changing roles we play in any domestic relationship, awareness of aging, the body’s vulnerability, ghosts of the past and present, unavoidable strife. In the paintings where there is the artist and two women, I am reminded of Robert Creeley’s justly famous poem, “The Whip,” in which the poet writes about a man and two women, one of whom is his wife: “She was/very white/and quiet, and above us/on the roof, there was another woman I//also loved…” For Greenwold, as for Creeley, art is a microscope for self-examination.
The paintings contain subtle allusions to art history, but are never parodies or citations. In its weirdness, “Edmund” (2006), shares something with Balthus’s painting, “Joan Miró and His Daughter Dolores” (1937-1938), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, while the red towel in “Excited Self” (2005-2006) and “Daybreak” (2006) alludes to “A Man With A Red Turban” (1433) by Jan Van Eyck, which is probably a self-portrait that is in the National Gallery, London. They are full of very specific facial expressions (Greenwold is a master at this) that elude easy definition. There are no stock gestures, poses, or looks. Usually one of the figures is facing us, making eye contact, pulling us into the narrative. In “Go or Stay (For Charlie)” (1998-99), which has five figures, a teenage girl, mouth open as if yelling “go,” looks at the viewer while pointing to an open doorway leading to another room. What led to this moment, in which the artist is standing off to the side, in a housedress, holding a cup of coffee and looking slightly befuddled, is never disclosed. Why does it appear as if the woman in middle, wearing a bathrobe and down on one knee, has a penis? Who are the two figures floating in the air, one holding an open book and the other a bird with a younger version of the adolescent’s face? It is the viewer who completes the story that resists closure. In fact, extracting a story out of one of Greenwold’s paintings is like starting with a piano to get the perfect toothpick. It can be done, but at what cost?
In contrast to other artists who explore narrative or include themselves in their work, Greenwold seems to recognize that the “I” (or author) can never really know itself or its subjects. He doesn’t take the vantage point of a god, but of one who is a witness to, and participant in, the inexplicability of daily life. Too big or too small for the spaces they occupy, his figures are never at home in their bodies, their relationships, or their houses. In addition, he also recognizes that the mind/body split is common to us all. This is perhaps why there are three figures in many of his paintings, and, in some cases, a human head is seamlessly attached to animal or insect’s body. The intricate abstract forms growing or emanating from his characters’ heads also convey this split. They are thinking something that cannot be known by others and may not even be known to them. Relatively new to his paintings, these abstract structures further complicate our reading of his work, as well as function as visual disruptions. Another formal tension that arises is between the faces, which can look as if they are peering into a funhouse mirror, and the background, where everything seems ordered and full. And, in some paintings, it’s as if everyone is on the same team of charades and the viewer is on the other side, trying to guess what they are spelling out.
Greenwold’s paintings successfully resist translation into the categories of style and academic discourse that the art world routinely uses to sequester work, and defang it. His work can be grouped with certain artists, also born in the 1940s, who consciously refused the security of critical dissertations because they believed that painting could stand on its own, without a need for justification in scholastic language. They are post-avant-garde artists who recognized that critical theorists had trivialized the avant-garde into an impotent model, and to seek their imprimatur was an act of subservience. Like these artists—and I am thinking of Bill Jensen, Catherine Murphy, Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, Thomas Nozkowski, and Jim Nutt—Greenwold believes that seeing and knowing are complex, irreducible engagements, and that the world is constantly busy. The guiding spirit for these artists is a belief in independence, or what in another time was called “self-reliance.” Mark Greenwold has thoroughly achieved his independence, and that’s an accomplishment that needs no other.