Once upon a Canvas: The Elliott Green Story

By Lee Smith. Modern Painters, Autumn, 2000

Some stories start when another story ends with why, but a better story, a story that doesn’t end, starts with how. ‘The frustrating, arrogant times were when I tried to make a finished thing’, Elliott Green says. ‘How do you do something? How do you get there? How do you become that? I was always interested in the question.’ The answer Green found was to use the question in his paintings. ‘It turns out it’s a road movie.’

Actually, most of the works in Green’s June 2000 show at Postmasters Gallery in New York start with a sketch-movie. The paintings are of details derived either from his drawings or from an extremely slow and deliberate drawing process he started experimenting with a few years ago that once finished looks something like a digital flip-book. He draws a line, scans it into a computer with PhotoShop, and then draws another line, scans that, and another, and maybe erases another and scans that. He’s looking for something that’ll jump-start the drawing, ‘something that hits me as right, a figure, a shape’. The curve of a limb appears somewhere or the silhouette of a face. ‘Then I look for something that complements it, and maybe eventually the first line gets lost; but once I have the first line, that’s when the drama comes in.’

The completed sketch-movie is a kind of how-to story about making art. For the artist, regardless of how long it takes, the drama’s in finding what comes next; for the beholder, since the inspiration is understood to be the premise of the work itself, the moment always seems instantaneous. Here’s how to see it the way the artist does. The catch, of course, is that you’re not, and watching the action unfold just makes it stranger. The sketch-movies, taking days on the production end, last just a few seconds on the computer screen and then rewind to the first line and build again. We’re still left wondering, how did it become a finished piece of art? At what point in the process was the making graced with inspiration? If it’s a little like a magician pulling the rabbit out of his hat again and again without ever giving it away, it’s worth keeping in mind that the rabbit’s just one part of a story that happens to have a rabbit in it. It’s a how-to story, but not about a finished thing, nor the intimation of a single moment.

‘I remember seeing this Picasso drawing of a horse where he had erased a couple of legs and redrawn them’, Green explains. ‘It really gave the drawing movement--not just physical movement, but phantom movement. The thing moved intellectually. If a form isn’t right, if it’s erased, the correction has meaning. It’s the process of the mind, moving and making. The form didn’t drop from outer space.’

Watching viewers see the sketch-movies at Postmasters for the first time reminded me of that cartoon stunt where a hand holding a pencil appears in the frame and draws a character, or a weapon or a roadblock; or sometimes a character takes an eraser and rubs out a rival. It’s a joke about cartoons and the invisible hand of cartoon fate, and hence one of the few sight gags not at the characters’ expense but ours.

We know what’s going to happen next just as well as the animators. It’s only the characters who don’t, or else Wile E. Coyote would’ve called off the hunt frames and frames ago. The sketch-movie turns a cartoon cliche upside down and shakes the cynicism out of it; in Green’s work it’s the artist and the onlooker who are granted a kind of animal optimism, at least enough to dally the doom of the inevitable Acme truck coming around the corner. It doesn’t matter what happens next, only that something in the mind’s moving, and making happens.

Green’s work has so long been associated with cartoons that most of the criticism hasn’t really distinguished it from the low-wattage cultural critique implicit in most of contemporary painting’s cartoon-like imagery. The world isn’t really as pretty as a Disney animation, the suburbs are much scarier than we can possibly imagine, children are sexual subjects as well as objects. Green’s figures aren’t tricked-up caricatures of emotions or ideas; as with Henry Darger’s Vivian Sisters, they’re characters themselves, inhabiting their own fully dimensional world. ‘Cartoons give you license to say, Once upon a time’, Green says.’ They set up the storytelling. Also, they let you say, Relax, this is not about you. And it’s not about me. It takes the ego out of it on both sides. But then later of course you realise, well—it is about me.’

Green was born in the suburbs of Detroit in 1960, the fourth of six children. His mother, who owned a small retail store, and father, a dentist, both encouraged their children’s interests. When Green said he wanted to be a writer, his father took him seriously enough to warn that if he was to be a writer, he was going to have to write some things people wouldn’t like and he should prepare himself for that. In 1978 he entered the University of Michigan to study literature. "“I took five or six courses in tragedy my first year—Shakespeare, Bergman, Ibsen, the Greeks— an impossible load of tragedy.” Green eventually switched over to art history before he left school in 1981, and headed for New York City and a career in painting, even though he’d never painted before. ‘I had only drawn’, he says. ‘I took some painting courses for a couple of months at the Art Students’ League, but it was almost too early for any kind of instruction. Everything was all new to me, and I was trying everything I could.”

“I was working in volume”, he explains, “mostly coloured pencil and gouache, moving faster, getting more experience, and doing as much work as I could. I guess coming from Detroit I was really attached to the cult of productivity.”

A lot of his earlier efforts in painting, he says, were burdened with his taste for literary symbolism. ‘I looked at the photos of painters looking at their paintings, holding their chins: think, think, think. I did this one painting I thought was good and I analysed it. I decided that among other things a great Green would be cropped in three places. I couldn’t replicate it and I sort of had a breakdown. I was so serious, so devoted to the idea of the finished thing that it was no fun. What made it fun, what made me more painterly was when I started to lighten up and accept abstraction. I got interested in paint at different viscosities, in tools. There was so much self-importance in that literary symbolism, it was so broody. Much more interesting and powerful imagery came out after I got interested in abstraction.’

Green, then twenty-nine, had his first solo show at Hirschl & Adler Modern in 1989, and another there in ’91. Most of the paintings from this time are variations on figures, and abstractions, in a landscape. One of his early influences was Corot, especially the portraits in landscapes, but Green’s figures are generally set a little further back. It’s a hugely energetic group of canvases, with Green’s investment in abstraction paying off in all sorts of experiments with application and texture in paintings like No. 19 (1989). The colours are wonderful but the palette’s so prodigal it hasn’t quite developed into a vocabulary. That started to happen with Green’s next two shows, at Fawbush Gallery in New York.

The Emergence series (acrylic on canvas, mostly two by three feet) from 1993 is where Green’s figures started to look more recognisably cartoon-like. Or maybe a better way of putting that is, they more clearly share the physical properties of cartoon characters; in paintings like Emergence 10 and 11 (both 1992) the re-imagined human limbs, stretched across the width of a canvas, or the body married to an animal’s features, are indices of his continued use of abstraction. The imagery is more clearly, sometimes hungrily, sexual, but for all the oversized genitals and suborning gestures, there’s nothing really lascivious here. It’s as though sex weren’t an economy but a hardy Midwestern variation on an American greeting. Blue is the predominant colour, with washes, particularly at the top of the canvas, articulating a more definite landscape. The figures are still set in a sort of middle distance but now emphasising how sharply they’re drawn. Indeed it was with this group of paintings that Green first found a satisfactory way to get drawing into his paintings.

‘Before, when I tried to transfer a drawing to a painting, the energy didn’t translate. But with these I made the gesso so thick, I could draw right on the canvas. The freshness of it was right there. The pencil line’s got a much wider range than a brush-stroke. It’s a vernacular. Our friends and families have handwriting, and it’s all expressive. You can read emotion and feel the character of shapes.’

Getting the pencil on the canvas was also a part of illustrating the process of making, leaving a trace of the handmade, and a step further from the idea of the finished thing. ‘The content was becoming more important than how it ultimately looked. The figures, the motivations, became more complex.’

Green wonders if some of the work from the next show at Fawbush, in ’94, wasn’t tainted with a certain sadness. His father was ill at the time and his dealer, Joe Fawbush, was dying. The landscapes are gone from these paintings and have been replaced by a rich blue curtain that grounds the figures and determines the limits of their movement in a more populated tableau. Green crops figures extensively in his later paintings, but here he’s pretty much working right up against the frame. The characters, as in Bumpy Says It’s Your Baby, Mother, are mostly in flesh tones, and a little less elastic than the Emergence figures but every bit as exuberant. With less evidence of abstraction in this group of paintings, it’s as though Green has condensed his means to focus the effect of character. But now he’s not worrying about myth making; abstraction’s given him the means to concentrate on the on the figure itself and let the story happen. The paintings were much larger, oil on 60" x 80" wood panels. ‘I had been building up the canvas before that with ten coats of gesso, so I wanted to get that surface without having to work it so hard.’ Where Green had previously set his figures in a middle distance, he brought the figures in closer, and now the viewers would move from distance to distance to see everything going on in them. From farthest away, they’d see the shapes of the black figures; from mid-range, the figures as characters; and up close, what he calls the river-bed quality of the paintings.

To get those rivers and valleys, Green used a jade-coloured Japanese glaze called Celadon, typically used as a last glaze with porcelains. It’s rather like a recording device, picking up everything in the construction of the work. ‘It doesn’t hide things the way a thick white glaze would’, Green says. ‘It gives the sense of hand and human touch, admitting all the flaws and highlighting whatever motor-mental brilliance there is.’

He had taught himself ceramics as a teenager, leading not only to his eventual interest in becoming an artist, but also to the kind of artist he’d become. ‘The crafts movement in the ’70s brought the hand back in. There was this great ceramicist, Peter Voulkos, who was sort of the AbEx ceramicist. He’d leave the finger lines in, or rip a finger-ridge into a soft plate, and as a kid I loved that. You could leave a big imprint from your thumb in something like it was a piece of chocolate cake.’

Green was after the same sort of effect with Gravity & Float. ‘Anything that happens in these paintings is recorded: the pencil, the erasure, the painting, all the decision-making, the adding and subtracting. If you had nothing better to do, you could determine exactly what happened in what order.’

These details were the images he used for the paintings. He’d fit a given section onto a 3" x 4" PhotoShop window, take an opaque printout and project it onto a primed 30" x 40" canvas and trace the pencil line closely, sometimes drawing it and filling it in, and rendering what was spontaneous the first time around. Green then sealed the surface and painted it.

‘The image is not as natural when it’s blown up’, Green says about the process. ‘But there are added factors.

The colour takes it from a personal or daydreamish thing and turns it into a durable presentable thing. But so do the size and the texture. Every negative shape and positive shape is interesting. The composition, the drawings, are fine. When I made those decisions I made them knowing they were complete. The colour is a way to take the temporalness of the sketch and make it more permanent. It’s formalising the inspiration. It’s like it’s an entertainer.’

When I saw the work in Green’s studio, he first showed me five or six of the most colour saturated canvases, before he came to one of the more difficult and rewarding pleasures the show has to offer. With Sought and Wanted Green used a much more washed-out palette that emphasises the pencil line. The small rectangular fields of yellows and greens are less expository than the more vivid pieces. There are no limbs or faces serving as borders between the colours, they’re on their own, vying with the drawn figure. Here’s Green’s abstraction again beautifully integrated with story.

The colour, he explains, is part of the story of each painting, but also tells another story across a group of paintings. ‘I wanted to use some colours that seemed to me nostalgic colours, certain yellows and greens that reminded me old toys or school cafeterias. I wanted to put them next to more contemporary colours to tell a story that would sort of accordion all the years in between. There’s so much competition for colour now. Coca-Cola’s red can’t be the same red they were using 50 years ago. Computers, plastics, pigments have given us so many new colours. Colour here, the older colours and the newer ones, are telling a side-story about colour.’

Green explains that he’s starting to see his work as a kind of flexible meditation on layering--layers of story of surface, and of process, both manual and computerized. The recent show, from the sketch-movies to the finished paintings, ‘is a documentary of that density, and now Green’s turning twelve of the finished sketch-movies into prints. Stories starting how don’t end. ‘I like the computer because it keeps giving you options’, Green says. ‘What if I do this? You try it, and if you don’t like it you undo it. The original can always be resurrected. It raises the idea of working on one painting your whole life, saving it and working on it again and again.’ Not to make a finished thing, Green explains, but to learn how to become a pasha. How else do you become that, he asks, except by painting a Scheherazade that becomes a kind of pasha itself continually postponing the end with how. [end]