Careful What You Wish For: Mark Greenwold at Garth Greenan
Mark Greenwold: And Now What?!
May 30 to July 12, 2019
545 West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, garthgreenan.com
Melodramatic and unhinged though they may at first appear, Mark Greenwold’s paintings frequently depict sexual and violent acts without actually being erotic or horrifying. Teasing the boundary between attraction and repulsion, his works are a litmus test of what you value in art. But if you allow yourself to be distracted by the grotesquery on display in this exhibition, And Now What?!, you might miss an important new direction his work has taken.
His often-naked figures are depicted with a fanatical photographic facticity that emphasizes the imperfect, aging, human body, if anything in a way that makes them even more abject than they might be in actuality. The women are often topless while Greenwold depicts himself, when not nude, clad in a negligee, or dead. It used to be not uncommon to see an ex-wife’s head grafted on a dog’s body, and seemingly none too happy about it, with the dog half getting better treatment. Most of the figures are friends and family, and though it is normally a proud distinction to be depicted in a work of art, in Greenwold’s case, be careful what you wish for.
A Magic Summer, (2017) depicts the well-known artist, James Siena, twice, once wielding a cleaver, and again prostrate in green underpants being stabbed in the heart with long pointed scissors by his topless wife, Katia Santibañez. But those are only three of the seven figures occupying a cramped seaside room, or nine if you include the dog and the disembodied head of Chuck Close floating at the window.
But something else seems to be going on at Greenan. Ostensibly presented as a mini-retrospective, this show really serves to demonstrate how the roots of Greenwold’s most recent paintings can be seen in the radical paintings he was doing while he was just in his early 20s. The four here are a revelation. They are all large (around four by five feet), energetically painted in acrylic, and though packed with figures, animals, and insects, and employing windows to exterior spaces, everything seems invented rather than sourced from photos. Christmas Painting, (1964), The Car & the Bed,” (1964), and Untitled (Lady Bug/Batman), (1965), all employ flat, colored (often brick red) planes to give the paintings the spatial flatness of Matisse’s 1911 Red Studio. Done in the mid 1960s, they were not very hip at a time when minimalist monochrome reigned but seem daring and original today. Though the talented 22-year-old Greenwold was clearly influenced by Francis Bacon, both existentially and stylistically, these paintings have a crazy energy all their own. By 1966-7, in Barbara (Grasshopper), a complexity of pattern and design, with areas requiring meticulous rendering, had already started to dominate. Then four years later, he shifted into more direct photo representational territory.
It is easy to trace the bulk of Greenwold’s mature paintings as deriving from two large works shown here that he did in his 30s: Spanish Mediterranean Bedroom, (1971), and Bright Promise (for Simon), (1971–1975). They both have scrupulously detailed, class-conscious interiors whose figures seem to be collaged into the painting space in a way that reveals the influence of Photorealism, the dominant, au courant representational mode of the early ‘70s. The obvious contrivance of the collaged space can be attributed at once to modernist privileging of artifice and a young painter’s inexperience with constructing congruent space from unrelated photographic sources. Greenwold’s figures in later paintings, while still having an obvious collage construction, are more seamlessly integrated into the space of the paintings even when wildly out of scale with one another.
But several years ago, incongruous clouds of randomly colored wacky biomorphic shapes began to appear above the heads of the people in his paintings. Initially it was hard to tell Greenwold’s purpose other than to introduce an element of abstraction, with the effect of creating unintelligible thought balloons that could further fuck with a viewer’s attempts at comprehension. After seeming to have been subsequently abandoned, recently these areas have reappeared and metastasized into full-blown expressionist tumors across the surface of the paintings. They signal a major evolutionary change in Greenwold’s purpose.
Up until now, mostly what occurs in Greenwold’s mature paintings have been depictions, and the purpose of his finicky small marks has been to render a vivid description of real surfaces and create interiors with furniture, objects, people, and animals that have a smirking sarcastic presence. But suddenly Greenwold uses these strokes to disintegrate objects and people and make the figures and their relationships even more ambiguous. And while writers lately have seen in the mottled, wrinkled, and flaccid flesh of Greenwold’s photorealistic characters a heroic confrontation with aging and death, this new approach is a philosophical shift, an infectious disintegration that doesn’t depict feeling but enacts it. Distasteful rendering of aging and death can be dismissed with an “ugh.” And though a scrupulously delineated surface can pull one in, it can also be tiring to contemplate all that labor. But the surfaces of these new paintings, such as Diaper, (2017) for instance, or Pink Bedroom, (2018) where the brushstrokes have started to come unmoored from their depictions, are energized with possibility. Images lose definition and force viewers to come to grips with the anxious loss of control of their own hermeneutic abilities. As the internal formal gyroscopes of the paintings break down, they hark back to Greenwold in his 20s, with their disrupted surfaces and invented figures.
Diaper, the most unnerving of his recent paintings, seems painted with wild abandon. The ghost of Picasso in his tighty whities, macho posing with his dog, mockingly haunts this painting. The main figure, recognizable as the artist himself, clad only in a yellow-stained adult diaper and knee brace, raises his hands in horror, his mouth open in a howl that would unnerve Munch. Even though he manages to delineate every yellowed tooth, we are easily distracted by his connection to a urine-filled catheter bag lying like a dead fish on a coffee table. Meanwhile, a dog is happily panting behind to the right, which is just below a man hung naked from the ceiling whose bulging eyes ogle a nude woman crouched ass-backwards on a chair below right. With a body that gives new meaning to the term contrapposto, her face has exploded into a cubist pile of expressionist brush strokes, though we can make out eyes, nose, open mouth, and ear, as well her two breasts that have also entered the cubist scrum. There also seems to be a little flying penis squirting cum into her mouth, a detail that requires close attention. Though the small object-packed interiors of his other paintings can seem (intentionally) claustrophobic, air wafts easily through these open brushstrokes affording room for chairs, tables, lamps, fireplace, mirror, and portrait hanging on the wall without feeling confining. A duck head also pops out of a metal vase in the foreground, and a partially formed disembodied head seems about to materialize in the air next to the hanged man.
The angst-ridden, post-adolescent confrontation, in the paint itself, with impending adulthood of Greenwold in his 20s has re-emerged in his late 70s as an emotionally comparable confrontation, with impending old age, disintegration, and death. Insanity in painting is a freedom of sorts, a letting go of one’s conventional attitudes, even if those attitudes might seem unconventional to everyone else. Beneath Greenwold’s work has lurked a secret hopeless desire to be accepted by a culture whose values he categorically rejects. That dynamic has played out using deliberately outrageous subject matter, softened by a studiously labor-intensive execution. But in art, as often in life, letting go of all calculation, even if already an outlier, often leads to becoming a true culture hero. In his latest paintings Greenwold is achieving the precise depth of emotion he has often only depicted—yielding to feeling, he is starting to lose his mind.