Cumberland Gallery | Through July 28
WORDS Noah Saterstrom
I could tell from photographs of Warren Greene’s work that to get any real grasp on these pieces, I’d better see them in person. So off I went to the Cumberland Gallery, along with my painter sister, to chat with Greene during the show’s installation. Twenty seconds into small talk, I found myself drifting from the conversation, crouching down to study the surfaces of the paintings still leaning against the gallery walls. Within a few minutes, the three of us were sitting on the gallery floor talking shop: process and painting.
Greene’s paintings are a unique convergence of the digital and the analog. Without slogging too deep into definitions, let’s just say ‘analog’ here refers to things with continuous variability (human gestures), and ‘digital’ in this context refers to finite and predictable elements (numerical values). His surfaces are confounding; it is not easy to imagine how they came to be. However, Greene’s process is methodical, linear—logical—even as he makes in-the-moment decisions about next steps. He applies layers of acrylic paint, employing industrial materials and equipment to move and shift it around the canvas. Maybe he then overlays a mesh screen on wet paint, removing it once the paint is dry, revealing a regular pattern. Perhaps he then sands the pattern, adds more layers, sands more.
“Greene’s paintings are a unique convergence of the digital and the analog.”
Greene is in close touch with the beautifully singular nuances that even the most repetitive actions can produce. As he sands a painting, or if he sands with one grit paper over another, any subtle change in how the paint was layered will change the effect entirely. When looking at paintings, I rarely ask, how was this made?—but that is exactly the question I kept asking as my eyes wandered toward Green’s pieces. With my face close to the paintings I heard myself say, “What is this?” And, it’s hard to tell. His own gestures are absent from the surface despite—or perhaps because of—repeating mechanical gestures: sanding, blowing, coating, scraping, polishing. The grand, passionate painterly gestures that were worshipped by abstract expressionists and dominated debate during the majestic rise of abstraction are nowhere to be found.
Painters often find in their work that they insist on, for instance, the figure, or the gesture, or narrative, or surface quality. Art devoted to surface quality is a facet of contemporary painting. The more purist practitioners of abstraction— Malevich, Rothko, Albers and the like—may be precursors to a painting style that is focused on optic effect and surface. Bridget Riley’s op-art and Gerhard Richter’s squeegee paintings are other limbs of that tree. When painters were no longer limited to biblical stories, or royal courts, or French bourgeoisie, some attempted to do away with subject altogether. But as many artists and poets have pointed out, subject matter is unavoidable, even if the subject is the surface itself. When surface is the subject, the value of a painting is in its smoothness, shininess, roughness, and so on— the optic effect and the process that made it so. The resulting artworks might find kinship in natural substances: rock worn down by river water, wood carved out by beetles, the opalescent depths of a frozen lake. In these works, specifically, there are echoes of Greene’s rural upbringing.
Within rigid constraints there is always, of course, the possibility of remarkable variation and improvisation. In this sense, Greene shares an elegant musicality of Philip Glass (whom he loves) and even the chance operations of John Cage, though with more thought to the outcome. Greene’s paintings appear as natural emanations. A painting that was produced by using an air compressor to move paint around in meandering grooves is as inevitable as worm trails on an old log. To my sister, it looked like a brain. In the edges, I was reminded of cupcake icing. As Greene said, all those meanings are free to interrelate without being fixed; contradictory associations are oddly enjoyable. A painting may be worm-eaten wood, a brain, or a cupcake—or better, all three at once.
In the course of our conversation, Greene mentioned his background in existentialism and semiotics and having submerged himself early on in the writings of Kierkegaard and Derrida. Noticing that many of his influences are brilliant minds but serious downers, I asked about the persistent beauty in his work.
“The world has a lot of suffering, but it also has a lot of beauty,” he said. “Beauty is hopeful, but also, beauty is a fact.”
Many years ago, Greene was at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and, though underwhelmed by the Old Masters in college art history classes, found himself within inches of a Rembrandt painting, desperate to touch its luminous surface. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to decide whether he did or not, but his preoccupation with glazes and layers and surface may be traced back to this encounter. As I sat with my face close to his painting, he said: “Feel free to touch it if you want to.”
Recent work by Warren Greene is on view at Cumberland Gallery though July 28. For more information, please visit www.cumberlandgallery.com