Works By Todd Greene
Through Sept. 22 at the Belcourt Theatre
In basic psychology, students learn about the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenonwhen the words you need are somewhere in your memory, but you can't quite find them. Todd Greene's abstract works at the Belcourt Theatre evoke the same sensation. It's as if the artist can't quite harness his thoughts and emotions into words or fully recognizable images. The viewer is cradled in this cusp of consciousness; as with inkblots or dreams, you feel compelled to construct meaning out of the paintings before you.
Pulled from Greene's Paw Paw Sermons and Slow Drum series, most of the 14 paintings are unframed, hanging from wire clips. The paper buckles underneath the unrehearsed lines and faltering colors. Greene's palate is sparse and works only to highlight the design of each composition. "Storm" uses just two colors, a drab green and a fiery orange. The green coats the paper with a calm evenness. Rising from the bottom left corner, the orange rushes in spirals to the right.
Greene combines grids and patterns with wavering lines and circular scribbles, giving many of the pieces a sense of conflict. The artist splits "Filled With Infinite Possibilities" into two halves. A rectangular grid fills the top half; black lines separate 16 squares, each filled with an arc surrounded by what looks like it could be a coffee stain. On the bottom half, the arcs continue without the grid to hold them in place. Thin, smeared lines from the top to the bottom connect all of the arcs, while wavering lines and irregular curves undermine and soften the rigidity of the grid form.
Many of Greene's basic, uncluttered designs would fit comfortably with the stoic, straight-lined polish of Minimalist art. But his use of emotional, expressionistic brush strokes to convey such orderly patterns disconcerts the viewerit's like catching a glitch in a carefully laid plan. With their use of incongruent, contrasting styles, the works become enigmatic.
The viewer tries to explain the discord, to reconstruct the meaning of the opposing rhythms in each piece. But with their vague designs, the paintings remain in a semiconscious realm. The farther we stand from them, the more likely we might be able to make out some kind of discernable image: viewed up close, the swirling mass of colors in "Projection" looks like an amorphous blob; from far away, the viewer could see pieces of a human form as it slowly disintegrates into something much less concrete.
Greene often offers an ambiguous clue with the titles. One painting shows a black triangle with tiny dots forming straight lines, all aiming toward the top of the shape. Greene has titled this piece "Flock," but what kind of flock might he mean? Are the tiny dots birds aligned during the migrant path? Or are they sheep meandering on a distant hill? Knowing that the artist works in a studio at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, knowing that he is the grandson of a Southern Baptist minister, I want to believe that the dots are sheepa biblical metaphor, of course, for mankind. Much of his work possesses a spiritual quality, and viewed in this light, the messy grids and dripping paint suggest human fallibility and the futile struggle to achieve a God-like perfection.
"From the Two" could be an abstract rendition of Adam and Eve. As in "Filled With Infinite Possibilities," Greene separates the canvas in half. In the bottom section, two twisting black circles seem to spark off each other, like two magnets or the popular cropping of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, where God's hand reaches out for Adam's outstretched fingers. Built on top of that, a grid of crooked lines separates a series of black blobs from one another. Like humankind proceeding from the first biblical couple, these contained blobs resemble the sparking figures above with their circular shape, multiplying in a linear, chronological fashion. The obvious imperfections of the grid invoke the story of the fall and the error intrinsic to humanity.
"Law" portrays 15 black rectangles (five columns down and three rows across), but the shapes aren't straight-edged: they all quiver around the edges, and the paint wavers between a heavy black and a washed-out gray. The faded background is littered with drips of paint. These "mistakes" and hesitant colors could also represent human imperfection, or perhaps the shades of gray often ignored in law.
However much it might ease some of the tension caused by Greene's discordant use of expressive brush strokes and minimal patterns, a spiritual interpretation of this work seems hazy, questionable; it's not the concise, concrete answer the structured pieces demand or the viewer desires. But while the viewer may continue to try to pin down a meaning, to understand how the juxtaposing elements work together, the paintings refuse to conform to a defining yoke. The paintings linger in the viewer's mind, begging for clarity. Much like the idea of God and an all-encompassing love and forgiveness, Greene's paintings are just out of reach, beyond full comprehension.
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