This essay was written in conjunction with Art Green on view at CUE Art Foundation.
Art Green first gained artistic recognition through his involvement with the Hairy Who, a Chicago-based group that formed in 1966 when several recent graduates from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago came together to exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center. The group gained notoriety for works that displayed a raucous sense of humor and an openness to non-mainstream art. Sources included comics and other vernacular expressions, as well as the art of other cultures. Green left Chicago in 1969 to take up a teaching position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and several years thereafter settled in Stratford, Ontario, where he was professor of visual arts at the University of Waterloo, a position he held until his retirement in 2006. Green has lived in Canada for almost 40 years, but he still maintains ties to the Chicago art scene-his paintings have been shown in numerous surveys of the Chicago Imagists, and many of his collectors live in Chicago.
This exhibition brings together a selection of his paintings from the last few years, plus one earlier piece, Blockbuster (1987). With their vivid colors, layers of patterning, and references to advertising and popular culture, the new canvases bear some resemblance to the ones that first brought him to public view. While the humor and wit of his early works are still present, albeit in a more subdued and subtle form, there is an unmistakable move away from satirical commentary and towards an exploration of how the eye navigates the painted picture plane. Green's most recent works signal a clear shift in his concerns and emphasize a sustained dialogue with the conventions and traditions of 20th century painting.
When Green moved to Nova Scotia, he left behind what he calls the "Hairy hoopla." Yet understanding Green's works, even today, requires an understanding of the Hairy Who-what they were reacting against, and what their art was about. Their art was anti-establishment, but it would be wrong to label the Hairy Who artists as anti-tradition. Their work was as much influenced by modern masters in the Art Institute-Ernst, Dubuffet and Magritte, for example-as it was by comics, mainstream and avant-garde films, and the non-Western art in the Field Museum. New York didn't matter to them-as fellow Hairy Who member Jim Nutt once said, the black and white reproductions in art periodicals just didn't have the same effect on them as what they could see first-hand in Chicago.
Green cites a range of contemporary influences, among them R. B. Kitaj, H.C. Westermann, and his friends from the Hairy Who: Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Falconer and Suellen Rocca. His works also contain references to trompe l'oeil painting, Surrealism, Cubism, and early 20th century scientific magazines with their pages upon pages of amateur inventions.
Since the mid-1980s Green has been exploring the visual possibilities of the Necker cube and the hypercube, geometric constructs that lend themselves to producing a powerful tension between two- and three-dimensionality. Blockbuster represents a shift in his work towards concerns with this tension. The Necker cube-an optical illusion in which the transparency of the cube causes uncertainty as to its orientation-forms the basis of Near Miss (2003), where nine Necker cubes radiate from a central point. The canvas takes the shape of a nine-pointed star. An optical illusion is the starting point for a puzzle where the viewer must sort out the various sides of the cubes. There is a playful element to Green's work. His ideal viewer is curious and inquisitive, perhaps the type of person who would take apart a machine in order to find out how it works.
In Chance Encounters (2004), a conventional rectangle in format, successively smaller squares are rotated at different angles to create intricate layers of patterns, shapes, colors and images. The mundane and the everyday pique Green's interest, and patterns based on wood grain and fire become part of this visually stimulating work. Chance Encounters also contains examples of one of Green's recurring motifs: trompe-l'oeil renderings of taped-up postcards or notes, layered as if on a crowded bulletin board. They may also serve as an homage of sorts: one is reminded of Braque's trompe-l'oeil nail in Still Life with Violin and Pitcher (1910).
Dark Matter (2004) is a shaped canvas suggestive of two overlapping rectangles. It presents a scene of densely packed New York City buildings merged with an image of the crater-scarred surface of the moon. The surface of the painting is broken up into a mosaic-like pattern inspired by the crackle of salt glaze pottery. This painting is unique in the context of this exhibition because it does not contain layered patterns or silhouettes. Both the modern city and the surface of the moon are built up gradually and contain evidence of their own history.
In the last couple of years, Green's use of shaped formats has taken a different direction. Cliffhanger (2007) is a trompe-l'oeil representation of six "canvases" (it is actually all in one piece), four trapezoidal and two rectangular, which appear to be stacked to form an irregular, vertical composition somewhat figural in implication. The elements in the "stack" seem precariously balanced and reveal a subtle wit. Each "canvas" depicts a single object situated in a pictorial void. A close-up view of a fingertip with a painted nail fills most of the bottom "canvas"-an unlikely base and support for a disparate collection of objects above it. Next is a depiction of a parachute; above that, a sickle and a scissors, each occupying its own rectangle, appear to be on the verge of puncturing the parachute. The stack is topped off by a crescent moon. Stress Point (2008) is a monument of sorts in which a fingernail, parachute and rocket form a symmetrical tower. An elaborate interlace pattern makes the imagery somewhat difficult to read. The influence of Surrealism, which dates back to Green's student years when he was exposed to the works of Magritte and De Chirico, is most apparent in these recent pieces.
Green's concerns come together in Artist Impression (2008) with its tension between spatial illusion and flatness, the surrealistic juxtaposition of everyday objects and the layering of patterns. The painting depicts a set of stairs that has been painted illusionistically with shadows to indicate depth. Various objects (a ladder, a pair of scissors, a moon) appear to bend and fold, following the movement of the stairs as though part of a chain of paper cutouts. The zigzag aluminum frame, however, which follows the outline of the stairs, emphasizes the work's flatness. The effect is one of uncanniness.
Works with this degree of complexity and detail could only be completed through a lengthy process. Often Green starts out with a doodle in a sketchbook, perhaps dashed off in a minute or less. From there he uses tracing paper to block out the main shapes and patterns. Once the various parts have been developed, a final drawing is made on tracing paper and transferred to canvas, then painstakingly painted with oils. On average, a painting will take several months to complete. There is a high degree of control and planning that occurs in the formal organization, down to the most subtle shifts in color and pattern. The meanings of the works, however, remain fluid.
The everyday, the irrational and the absurd are combined and tightly woven together in a carefully orchestrated pictorial surface. The multiple meanings in these works and their formal complexity are not intended to challenge or frustrate, but rather to entice and appeal. They beg for exploration and sustained viewing. As free time becomes scarcer and more precious, Green's works ask us to slow down and discover their seemingly endless intertwining of patterns, images and ideas.
This essay was originally published in December 2008.
The writer, Meghan Bissonnette, is currently pursuing a PhD in art history at York University in Toronto, Ontario. Her dissertation focuses on the historiography of American sculptor David Smith and how reviews of his work reflected contemporary constructions of American and masculine identity. She has written on contemporary painting, media art and feminist art practices in publications for Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery and The Khyber Centre for the Arts, both in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has also contributed exhibition reviews to the Halifax-based magazine Visual Arts News. She has completed a BFA in fine arts and a BA in art history from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and an MA in art history from York University.
The mentor, Eleanor Heartney, is a contributing editor to Art in America and Artpress and has written extensively on contemporary art issues for such other publications as Artnews, Art and Auction, The New Art Examiner, the Washington Post and The New York Times. She received the College Art Association's Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism in 1992. Her books include Critical Condition: American Culture at the Crossroads (Cambridge University Press, 1997); Postmodernism (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art (Midmarch Arts Press, 2004); Defending Complexity: Art, Politics and the New World Order (Hard Press Editions, 2006); and Art and Today (Phaidon Press Inc., 2008), a survey of contemporary art of the last 25 years. She is a co-author of After the Revolution: Women who Transformed Contemporary Art (Prestel Publishing, 2007), which won the Susan Koppelman Award. Heartney is a past President of AICA-USA, the American section of the International Art Critics Association. In 2008 she was honored by the French government as a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
 Dan Nadel (interviewer), "Hairy Who's History of the Hairy Who," Ganzfeld, issue no. 3, 2003, n.p.