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The sumptuous, emotional, and multi-layered painterly work of Tony Greene (1955–1990)—featuring found images, text, and decorative elements in objects both large and small—is experiencing something of a moment right now. The artist received a room of his own within two major exhibitions in 2014: the Whitney Biennial and Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum, with the former curated by artists Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins and the latter by ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries curator David Frantz. In addition to his presence in these group exhibitions, Greene was the subject of a solo show at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House, which was also organized by two artists: Judie Bamber and Monica Majoli. These shows preserve Greene’s status as an artists’ artist, with particular significance for the Los Angeles communities of art makers and queers in which he was active after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 1987.
The MAK exhibition suggests a reason for the reverence Greene garners among his peers. Through the sensitive pairing of objects displayed alongside evocative works of literature and photographs of his studio, Bamber and Majoli portray Greene’s practice as, in part, an exploration of the political potential of art making. The curators present his layering of decorative motifs and washes of color over found images of nude male torsos, pursed lips, and taxidermied deer as formal investigations—as a play with surface, depth, and different modes of representation. The crux of this exhibition, however, is the argument that these formal investigations themselves contributed to a larger conversation about art, politics, and their points of overlap. This conversation took on vital importance in relation to the AIDS crisis and the exigencies it imposed upon a community of queer artists in Los Angeles.
Greene’s ruminations on the relationship between formal concerns and politics occurred in a moment that was rife with discussions about the significance of queer life and what constitutes political activity. Frantz’s Made in L.A. presentation of Tony Greene: Amid Voluptuous Calm provides a constructive foil in this regard, as it presents one specific current of thought about the politics of queer life. This is a form of politics open for exploration within the field of art, but less able to incorporate the kinds of formal, aesthetic investigations that Bamber and Majoli emphasize within Greene’s work. In his Hammer Museum installation, Frantz displayed Greene’s work alongside other artists who responded to the AIDS crisis in a much more direct and militant fashion, asserting, “We’re here, we still have blood and guts even though they may contain a virus, and fuck you for trying to use that to make us seem any less human because of it.” Ron Athey’s performance work is featured in Frantz’s show and brings out this aspect of Greene’s art most concretely, as the blood and other bodily fluids exiting Athey’s body in his performances echo the sickly reds, blues, and yellows that bathe images of nude male torsos and parsed lips in Greene’s paintings.
This kind of more didactic address is clearly present in the MAK show, most notably in Through the Cracks from 1987, an installation of thirty-six out of thirty-nine terra-cotta tiles collaged with obituaries from Southern California newspapers for men who had died of AIDS; and two pieces from the “Pour” series, Untitled (yellow pour) and Untitled (orange pour), both from 1990. In the “Pour” pieces, rather than frame and overlay his images with his typical thick, raised line work, Greene surrounds the faintly pursed lips—which regularly appear in his paintings—with a thick spill of white paint, ringed on the inside and outside edges with dank red, orange, and yellow tones. The simultaneous allusion to milk and ejaculate both normalizes and makes dangerous the homoerotic desire Greene represents, with the infection-inflected color scheme implicating a dominant culture that renders such desire deviant and propagates AIDS as a public health crisis through its willful indifference and inaction.
The MAK show also demonstrates that there is more to the politics of Greene’s work than this form of art-as-activism highlighted by Frantz. The political potential within Greene’s work, and queer art practice more generally, materializes not only as advocacy for changes in public policy, but also as an aesthetic exploration of different means of generating meaning and value through cultural production. This aesthetic politics of Greene’s practice is the most novel, and most necessary, of the exhibition’s contributions to the artist’s legacy, and goes far to explain the avid affection he generates among his artist-peers, personal ties aside. His work makes an argument for the importance of artistic practice itself. It places the questions of signification posed by art on a plane with the kinds of meaning making that happen in the social field, which render some forms of desire sanctioned and others deserving of disease and death. The AIDS crisis certainly shaped Greene’s practice, Bamber and Majoli assert, but it provided the ground against which he worked rather than constituting the sole site of his address, which is a common interpretation of the artist and his practice. Images of mouths and bared chests covered in washes of rancid colors, Gothic designs on a ground of taxidermied stags in a diorama landscape—these objects certainly do convey an affect of memento mori. But the sharp contrast between Greene’s theatrical source images and his baroque appliqué over these images on the one hand, and the stark interior of architect Rudolph M. Schindler’s house in West Hollywood, CA, on the other, lays bare the fact that there is more going on in these objects than elegiac expression.
The curators place Greene’s aesthetic political exploration in a specific context in a small side reading area that falls between the first and second of four otherwise large galleries within the high-modern interior of the Schindler House. Two of Opie’s photographs—featuring collaged source material and planning studies from Greene’s studio—hang near a stark cement bench piled with books. All of these materials locate Greene’s work within queer visual and literary traditions, built from the production of gay and queer artists, and also within motifs that resonate with queer visual and material culture. Opie’s photograph Untitled #5 (Tony’s Studio) (1990) presents a copy of Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait Me and My Parrots (1941) hanging on the same wall as Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Wanderer Above the Mists (1817–18), pairing an investigation of identity with a contemplation of the sublime. Likewise, repeated appearances of Saint Sebastian, scantily clad and writhing in response to being pierced by arrows, are balanced with samples of textiles and images of wrought-iron designs similar to those adorning many of Greene’s paintings. This amalgam of imagery outlines a queer aesthetic demimonde constituted by an investigation of the relationship between visual material and philosophical questions large and small—from the nature of existence and identity to the various ways in which communities identify and differentiate themselves from others through their stylistic presentation.
The books included in the reading area reinforce the framing of Greene’s practice set forth in Opie’s photos. Presenting the work of queer writers, as well as other authors whose work addresses the political significance of cultural production, these books collectively create a landscape of the Gothic and the Romantic; they question what is real and what is fake, and the significance of each term in that binary in relation to both nature and identity. From the hyperrealism of Jack London to the quintessentially stylized Jean Genet, and in the context of the existentialism of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, the literary works form an atmosphere in which both narrative and formal investigations of aesthetics can occur—exploring the connection between surface and style on the one hand, and depth and being on the other.
Greene renders these questions plastically, with his conspicuous juxtaposition of different layers of signifying systems, including an image, a wash of color, and the thick appliqué that make up letters, words, and designs on most of his pieces. The books, as well as the objects of visual and material culture included in Opie’s pictures, create a context in which these investigations into painting and representation resonate with questions of lived practice. This juxtaposition finds an echo in Greene’s Mirror, Mirror (1990), a series of brass plates engraved with evocative excerpts from a similar array of literary works. With these objects, Bamber and Majoli highlight how Greene imbues formal investigation with a political significance related to the attempts within queer communities to create alternative social orders via stylistic means.
The work that shares its title with the exhibition, Room of Advances (1988), is noteworthy for its deviation from the majority of Greene’s paintings. And yet, it contains both the specific and the universal questions posed by the artist’s practice, questions about not only surface, paint, and representation but also signification and politics. A five panel, mixed-media piece that measures 8 5/8” by 50 3/4”, the painting shares neither source imagery nor surface manipulation with any other work in the show. It is an earlier piece by the artist, and the central panel displays an enlarged photograph of a nude torso—from nose to hips with arms outstretched—in front of a forest of bare tree trunks and branches. The repeated image of a modern interior flanks this central image, and the outermost panels are fields of sickly yellow articulated brushwork, thickly overlaid with the red-orange resin that variably covers the entire piece. These panels are simultaneously linked by difference and sameness: there are three different panels, two of which are repeated twice. Each receives treatment from the yellow wash and red-orange resin, though saturation, coverage, and thickness vary across each panel.
While the piece lacks the stylized lines and letters of Greene’s later paintings, it nevertheless investigates different levels of representational systems, which are layered upon the body in nature and mediated through artistic processes. The scale of Room of Advances and the detail of its images draw the viewer into the work, but the resin also blocks entry, making the representation, on all of its levels, strange. The juxtaposition of the figure with the interior scenes alludes to the possibility of sexual contact—to the “advances” of the work’s title—but the contact is forever blocked and the advances forever forestalled by the edges of the canvases. The piece intertwines color with desire, representational systems with the body, highlighting precisely the register to which Greene stakes his politics—the space where all of these issues overlap, which happens to also be the space of queer social life.
Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual Culture, School of Art and Design History and Theory, Parsons The New School for Design