In the Future, Everything Is Free at Galerie Tangerine through March 23
WORDS Kathleen Boyle
In February of 1918, artist Richard Huelsenbeck orated “The First Dada Manifesto” in Berlin, Germany, stating, “The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day.” A radical and demanding movement whose artists favored methods of appropriation to deliver sociopolitical critique, Dada thumbed its nose at the notion that civility motivated civilization via tough imagery—human forms cut from periodicals, contorted and fused with mechanical debris, became catalysts who question the effects of technological progress, while the montage medium nodded to post-consumer waste.
Fast-forward exactly 100 years later and consider the work of Nashville artist J. Todd Greene. His paintings, sculptures, assemblages, and video that populate the solo exhibition In the Future, Everything Is Free channel the ethos of a similar rebellious Dada vein. Greene’s work, on view at Galerie Tangerine through March 23, is political without being overt, satirical without being obnoxious, as it investigates an interconnectedness between culture and individual. “Of great concern to me is the lack of humor in our nation’s current political climate,” Greene stated as he waxed poetic about the motivations behind his artistic practice. “I don’t want to name names [of specific politicians], but it is clear how attitudes affect the decisions of people who are not wholly cognizant of their own actions.”
Organized into two series titled Accidental Exorcist and Harmony That Remained, Greene’s recent work channels observations and reactions to national and Nashville-specific events. They are accompanied by selections from a third collection titled Paw Paw Sermon, a series Greene completed years prior that was inspired by his late grandfather’s pictograph sermon aids.
One of the most striking qualities about the work of In the Future, Everything Is Free is its lack of readily available narrative despite the fact that Greene employs accessible abstraction. Meaning, the majority of his work is not nonrepresentational. He incorporates a number of recognizable elements—whether painted or affixed—throughout the surfaces of his compositions and heavily alters the appearances of said elements without disseminating original form. Greene isn’t interested in giving his viewers replicas of the various materials he selects for his artwork. That would be too absolute. Too easy. Rather, the necessity for observation and contemplation becomes clear. Greene’s art requires engaged, difficult, cognitive looking in order for the elements to gel. And perhaps the most satisfying reward from such exercise is the likely conclusion that no one interpretation will be the same. “If [the idea behind the work] is too obvious, people stop listening and/or retreat into their corners,” Greene stated. Thus, by establishing a platform for laborious visual concentration, Greene paradoxically celebrates the individual through the widespread relatability of recognizable images.
But this is not to assume that Greene had blind inspiration when making his art. On the contrary, one need only review the titles of his collections to confirm that explicit intent fueled the creative process. Sociopolitical on many levels, the artwork that Greene produces stems from a multitude of questions and concerns that he harbors for humankind’s present civil and spiritual state. Like Dadaists who turned discarded materials into art as commentary for war, industrialization, economic disparity, materialism, and influx of media inundation, so too does Greene’s mixed-media artwork combine a plethora of images and materials into singular compositions that posit concerns for the human condition. “When people have bad dreams, for example, they need to recognize that the mind is producing thoughts that are consequences of interactions,” Greene explained. “All of it is connected; all of us are connected.”
Thus, works such as Is This Your Card, a large mixed-media composition that features the silhouette of a caricature bunny and highlights timeless childhood games, may at first appear to be playful—and it is!—but it also coveys elements of nostalgia, sadness, a sense of loss. Is This Your Card is dense in its layers of paint and objects. The previously mentioned silhouette is the result of negative space—a wash of green brushstrokes that fill the rabbit’s form indicates the surface prior to an application of white impasto. An accumulation of small toys—stray puzzle pieces and goodie-bag prizes—peppers the surface, the majority also camouflaged by a smattering of thick paint. It’s as though youth and the act of play become covered, hidden but not forgotten. “The ‘white trash’ assemblages are nods to artists like Rauschenberg and Thornton Dial who use what people throw away to both redeem materials and shine a light on our self- destructive ability to abuse resources and remain calm about it,” explained Greene.
Greene has been living in Nashville for the past 43 years. He has witnessed the rapid population influx, surging development, increased living costs, and decreased number of weird local businesses. Not only does he see Nashville transforming into a city that is losing its character, but he also views it as a city whose changes exemplify the embrace of homogenization by the American populace, their consumer choices made out of convenience often at their own economic expense. Such observation also informs his creative process. “What could be more patriotic than conserving the very land we love and live in?” he asked. “Paying a fair wage for goods and services and supporting local communities by shopping local?”
The Harmony That Remained series directly addresses the notion of local economy via the evolution of Nashville’s creative community, a community that also is experiencing increased hardship as affordable studio spaces are eliminated for profitable commercial and residential properties. Recognizing film writer and director Harmony Korine who had been a long-time staple in Nashville’s arts scene prior to relocating to Miami, the Harmony series is a collection of portraits of various Nashville artists—Rusti Anne, Myles Maillie, Lain York—who have maintained significant contributions to the city’s visual art footprint. Furthering this support of decorum within a local economy, Greene has also given all of the artwork in the exhibition a price of “pay what you want.” “There have been so many times when people have wanted to purchase one of my artworks, but the conversation ended when they found out the price,” Greene explained. “I don’t want money to be the reason why someone can’t own a work of art that they really want.”