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An Interview with Elliott Green

Lee Smith

Elliott Green’s “Human Nature” is one of the early hits of the 2017 art scene. Showing at the Pierogi Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (it closes March 26), Green’s show won praise from critics across the spectrum, including the New York Times, and the more specialized art press. His paintings seem to have a particular appeal for writers and poets—the catalogue essay was written by a poet, Jana Prikryl—in part because his pictures, his landscapes as well as his figurative pieces, tell stories. But there’s also a remarkably tactile feel to Green’s canvases, evidence of someone who loves not only paint, but also the brush, and other tools he uses to apply paint. He’s a painter’s painter.

I’ve known Green for about twenty years, and have some of his paintings and drawings, which instruct and gladden me every time I look at them. A 57-year-old native of Detroit, Michigan, Green moved from Manhattan to Hudson, New York in 2005, where I visited him in his studio recently. We spoke about his latest show, his favorite painters, and a new passion—Instagram.

LS: Congratulations on all the excellent notices your new show is getting. It’s your first solo show in New York in nearly a decade—how has the New York art scene changed since then?

EG: Everything is very different, and I think better. Artists go to openings and meet other artists they have gotten to know pretty well by their Instagram posts. It’s easier to introduce oneself having that connection. [Green’s Instagram feed can be found at @elliottigreen.] In all the time I was living in the city, before I moved upstate, there were artists whose work I admired, who I would have never recognized had we walked past each other on the street. My generation didn’t have a Cedar Tavern where we could meet, and very few had the level of celebrity that channeled their likenesses into magazines.

LS: A lot of people would assume that the art world has become more cutthroat, rather than more communal and cooperative as you seem to suggest.

EG: Well, another very positive thing taking place in New York is group scouting—there are indefatigable people taking pictures of art in obscure galleries and at studio visits and posting them. These are one’s legs and eyes, collectively omniscient. I have never had a better overview of what is being shown in galleries and museums, even thought these places are more spread out than ever before. I’m talking primarily about New York City, but there is cultural reconnaissance from all over the world.

LS: In college you first wanted to be a writer and then dropped that and picked up a paintbrush. Still, your reviewers find that your paintings tell stories.

EG: Right, let me stick with the Instagram for a second to elaborate. At first I saw it as a way for me to show older work that would otherwise have been in storage for years and years. But then I realized it was possible to present an interesting narrative by mixing old and new work in a way that would highlight the relevance of both by comparing how lifelong motifs arose in different forms over time. I saw patterns and parallels that I never realized were there and it exposed a fresh audience to a more compelling longer view, helping them understand motives and methods that would have escaped them just seeing a gallery show of recent work.

For example, in my early drawings and paintings there are characters that move sinuously through the composition, almost choreographed. Later, biomorphic abstract shapes related to each other in the same way. Now, mountain shapes sway and stretch in a similarly connected relationship. When these periods of work are interspersed and stranded together, it makes for a better fuller story.

LS: And helps explain the different ideas and forms your work has taken over the years.

EG: I suspect that my retrospective will be structured like a life: my early work had a young rubbery energy and my later work more encompassing, and is held together by many more topics and methods.

Certain events changed the tone of my paintings over time—like the deaths of my parents, getting married, getting the Rome Prize, open heart surgery, getting divorced. All that experience is in there—the periods of blind joyful hope, desperate hope, exuberance, disappointment, feeling older and thinking I might die, then my recovery to perfect health, and lately a career resurgence.

LS: Is this storyline typical of most painters?

EG: There’s a great essay by Rudolf Arnheim titled “On Late Style”, New Essays on the Psychology of Art that points out how the work of older painters softens and dissipates. Foreground melts into background when the egos that sought to distinguish themselves in their youth have been worn down. Willem De Kooning’s last paintings are a good example. The precise incised line becomes a schmear. That could likely happen to me too.

LS: You mean you can see the next phase of your work?

EG: No, I can’t really. I have always been making work in the here and now, and so everything I’ve made was created naturally, correlates appropriately to my age and experience and environment. Everything I’ve done was driven by genuine curiosity and motivated by the feeling of necessity. So even if there were stupid or silly periods, they were true. I followed drawings and paintings to where they wanted to go and didn’t give direct orders.

LS: Why did you become a painter? Why would anyone take up a risky profession that some think has outlived its sell-by date.

EG: I started drawing relatively late, in my early twenties, and at first I was fascinated by faces. This could have been a way to cultivate mind-sight, and also a way to describe my own interior feelings. The thing that held my attention was the way lines could be rhymed to combine into a caricature that could symbolize a person’s attitude. I always felt like I was watching my hand perform, which was entertaining, and addicting because I was curious to find out what would happen next.

What came of it seemed like magic to me because random shapes could suddenly lock into a persona. It’s related to pareidolia, which is seeing meaning, in this case recognizing a face, where no pattern exists, for instance in random lines. Then bodies grew out of the heads and I put these personae into situations, and that became increasingly dramatic.

LS: You mentioned the mountains in your recent paintings. How did landscapes become a feature in your work when you were previously interested in caricatures, human figures. Is that a response to your move to upstate New York where mountains are a regular part of your visual life?

EG: When I moved to the country just over a decade ago, the figures transformed into amorphous shapes in which you could sense a temperament in the forms, like body posture or a mouth-like expression in the folds of the layers of paint and air spaces, usually on the top part of the canvasses. That upper zone was an opportunity to show simultaneous weathers to make a weather-to-mood correlation. And below those emotion filled skies, I painted strands of round and sharp shapes that I think, in different proportions from hospitable to hostile, describe a personality or a community.

The shapes are basic symbols that evoke a primary meaning: the rounder, the more like a breast or a fingertip, the more alluring and comforting it is. The more pointed, like a fang or claw, the more threatening it is. And in some combinations they are both at once. I compare it to the statue of Romulus and Remus suckling on the wolf—that image has gentleness and danger in a beautiful combination.

LS: What is it painting can do that the other arts can’t convey?

EG: Painting can have the virtues of honest touch and human presence. Painting gestures are documented hand gestures, which I assume were the way the first humans communicated. A practiced artist’s hand can think faster than his head, and in many ways project feelings his mind might have restrained. Also, a great painting is like a great poem, it has layers of meaning that peel away to reveal others below, and never stops doing that for a smart viewer.

Philip Guston and Thomas Nozkowski are two of my favorite painters and when you look at the pressures and speed with which their brushes touched their canvasses, you feel an intelligent, visceral pleasure.

Guston’s touch pushes and jabs into the surface with strong conviction, but also seeks, and when he changes his mind and goes in another direction, there’s no problem, he doesn’t erase his tracks, and so you can see his mentation. Because he uses such thick paint, every small basin and range in the impasto registers his personality in this way. He’s trying to get at something, an answer, and that mental searching is recorded in the paint forever, almost like the sound in an LP. And his being in this way is permanent, which I’m happy for.

Thomas Nozkowski is a different kind of genius. He has a great touch too, but it is slower. It’s unhurried—and meditative and intelligent and focused like a good listener. Staring at one, or just being in the room with one, will slow down your heart rate and calm your nerves. He also has a sophisticated sense of humor that appears in the way his shapes change meaning and context as your eyes move over his paintings to perceive it, catch up with him. It’s like he has brilliant timing. You can’t understand how this is possible in a painting because you’ve never seen it before in the history of art—he’s invented it and he remakes it again each time. His colors too are deep and slow and in combinations absolutely new to this world, and the great attention and time he spends on his work is suspended and sustained in it.

I like how my brain has guided my life, but when I look at the paintings made by those two people, I wish my brain was more like theirs. I can look at both of them forever and never get bored again.

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