Elliott Green is an artist known for the diversity of his images. Born in Detroit, he studied literature and took up drawing before settling into painting. His recent exhibit at Pierogi Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York includes a number of works which look like landscapes, since they show mountains, the ocean and the sky. But they also contain other fantastic elements with colors and shapes that seem to depict inner imaginings rather than the natural world.
This exhibit impressed GlacierHub, as it impressed reviewers such as Peter Malone, who said that Green “strides confidently right over the rumbling fracture” between representation and abstraction. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Jana Prikryl stated “His compositions demonstrate the movement of the universe on both the macro and the micro scales. They … are first and last human documents, their rhythms legible to the pulse and not above trying to accelerate it.”
Green’s paintings in this exhibit remind us that people experience nature, not just with their senses, but with their minds. The many different textures in his works, produced by using sponges, knives and squeegees to apply paint, as well as brushes, suggest distinct modes of perception. As our eyes turn from one feature to another, our minds explore other associations. He shows us how the landscapes in front of our eyes become mindscapes as we view them. GlacierHub interviewed Green last week.
GlacierHub: Your show is titled “Human Nature.” It explores the relation of what is human and what is nature. The painting “North of the Hippocampus,” with its cool blue cloud-filled skies, tall mountains, and other forms, points both to a location in the world and to a space beyond the hippocampus, the component of the brain that is essential to memory. Do you seek to juxtapose transient and long-lasting elements both in the brain and in the external natural world?
Elliott Green: The paintings show imagined places. Very often the titles are anatomical names, usually locations in the brain, but sometimes glands and hormones.
On a map of a brain, the Hippocampus is just below the entorhinal cortex, where a person’s spatial memory shows activity on an MRI. It’s the place where you register where you are–the neural GPS, where psyche meets place.
This idea of syncing psyche and environment occurred to me when I began painting a range of different weather systems across a long, single sky along the top of a canvas. I used that as a code for emotions, which move in rapidly changing sequences.
This analogy was augmented by having distant mountain shapes getting larger toward the fore. This too became a method for describing temperament, an arrangement of sharp and round shapes which correspond in some degree to hospitality and hostility, like caressing fingertips or slicing claws. Combining gentle and dangerous shapes seems like a good way to depict how a person might view the world.
It’s something we all know, that our physical selves are reconfigured earth matter, composed of calcium and iron and water and all the other minerals that roll down a mountain during a storm. This is just another way to revision that greater overview.
GH: Your paintings challenge the viewer’s efforts to separate out real objects and mental images. “Psychoid Moraine” invites the viewer to locate the moraine, and offers the long, diagonal gray area as a possibility. The yellow sky, red stripes and horizontal lines might be elements of the psychoid energy which Jung described. Do you see parallels in the processes which shape landscapes and the human self?
EG: Viewers’ first impressions are that they are seeing a familiar scene. Then the unusual components reveal themselves, and metaphors occur to them. The viewing becomes a mental exercise to understand the differences and relationships of the elements.
In the case of “Psychoid Moraine,” I did see that gray zone as a dividing rift that could apply as a metaphor for psychical fragmentation or a gouge and wound. But the painting is so lyrical that the scarring doesn’t seem disastrous.
GH: Your paintings challenge the viewer’s innate tendency to judge depth. Many contain distinct horizon lines and contrast foreground and background, suggesting distance, but also lack shadows, and the relative size of elements are hard to guess. Do you wish to resist the viewer’s effort to become oriented?
EG: When a brain determines that a picture is a landscape, it will accept some things that would never be so in the reality. For example reflecting water does need to reflect what is behind it– as long as the water is shimmery, almost any image can substitute.
My landscape paintings transitioned from the kind of abstract paintings that try to convey the workings of bodily interiors– invisible feelings and unconscious thought. In those paintings, space and time can be spliced and twisted. I tried to keep those poetic freedoms when I converted to the new framework, and used as many tangents and asides as I could without undermining the overall sense of distance and space.
That effort sometimes involves taking liberties with scale, introducing multiple horizons, and piercing new dimensions with niches of foreign abstractions. I feel it in my gut when an object is too big or small for where it is positioned in the composition.
GH: Your paintings contain large, brightly-colored elements, some with sharply defined edges, some of which fade off softly. “Aerolith” is a striking example. Do you see connections between the variable boundedness of natural objects and human experiences?
EG: I think I know exactly what you mean. I used to think a lot about this– how the edges of a subject meet the background behind it. For example, if the figure was hard and sharp edged, that meant it was self involved, egotistical and alienated. And if one had soft boundaries it meant it was attuned to its environment, could dissolve into to it to become part of the larger world. I thought I would rather be like the second type of thing.
You are being graciously cautious in your questioning because you know that I’m an improvisational artist who makes intuitive paintings that have several possible meanings at once so that they can continue to be interesting over a long period of time.
GH: The white masses in “Mineral Ancestors,” “Beach Mountain,” and “Fire Drip” can seem like glaciers, an element which Roberta Smith noted in her review of your show in the New York Times. The red masses suggest desert mountains. Do you seek to evoke specific features of nature (as you do at times with parts of the human body, as in “Fist and Shadow”), or are the forms more generalized?
EG: There’s a lot of lava-like and ice-like formation in these paintings, especially the larger ones—“Mineral Ancestors” and “Human Nature.” And “Beach Mountain” was named with William “Strata” Smith in mind, the geologist who I learned about from Simon Winchester’s book, The Map that Changed the World. He found the fossilized seashells on a Scottish mountaintop and ascertained that the world had to be much older than anyone believed at the time.
Bringing together scenic landmarks from around the globe is like having a diorama filled with a comprehensive sampling of specimens. It adds to the sense of expansiveness when making paintings on that epic scale.
When the hot colors confront the cold colors, it makes an energy, like wind, and when the meeting of landforms is very abrupt, it causes a feeling of agitation and dramatic excitement. I admit, the melting right side of “Mineral Ancestors” is a little ominous.
GH: Do your paintings express any thoughts you have about current environmental crises?
EG: I have thought that these paintings are a way to make nature more human, to personify it, in order to cultivate more compassion for it. My mountain ranges have an animism, a personification that is projected from my psyche. The natural world is already a beautiful place, so why do I need to remake it more like people? It’s another way in.
But, you are asking me to what degree do these paintings refer to climate change, glacier melting, and sea level rise. It occurs to me now that the first example of this kind of painting appeared about four months after Hurricane Irene. That storm got my attention, but in my studio I guess I was just thinking about how weather serves as a great metaphor for emotion.
I have learned more about climate change through documentaries and lectures, away from the studio. I know I’m feeling distressed like everyone else. It is disturbing, frustrating, angering and sad, and I’m sure these feelings are reverberating through our collective consciousness. My paintings have absorbed this deep sense of being upset without my trying to force such a momentous theme onto them.