Elliott Green’s Paintings of Mountain Mindscapes

Beach Mountain by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
Beach Mountain by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.

Human Nature by Elliott Green (source:: Elliott Green.Pierogi)
Human Nature by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.

North of the Hippocampus by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
North of the Hippocampus by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.


Psychoid Moraine by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
Psychoid Moraine by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.


Fist and Shadow by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
Fist and Shadow by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.


Aerolith by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
Aerolith by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.


Fire Drip by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
Fire Drip by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.

Mineral Ancestors by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
Mineral Ancestors by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.

The Photon Skirt by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi)
The Photon Skirt by Elliott Green (source: Elliott Green/Pierogi).

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.

Installing Water in the Art Gallery and the Human Mind

François Quévillon is an artist from Montreal whose work engages directly with questions of human experience of the world, at a time when nature itself is in deep crisis, and when human perception is shaped by the intrusion of media and technology into many domains of life. He refuses to slot himself as someone who only celebrates nature or only mourns it. Recognizing that our movements bring us at times into galleries, at times into remote places, he produces installations and media pieces that can surprise, shock or delight, but that always hold the attention at the time of viewing and hearing, and linger in the viewer’s and spirit long after. He is well-known for his works that display ice and water in movement. In his video/audio work Defrost, for example, he uses three screens to link multiple perspectives on a single process—the melting of a block of ice—with the human capacity to shift the focus of attention.  The link here shows this work. 

Trained at the Université du Québec à Montréal , a participant in the Interstices Research-Creation Group, and active as an artist-in-residence, he took time recently for an interview with GlacierHub.

Defrost [installation] (Source: Quevillon)
Defrost [installation] (Source: F. Quévillon)

GH: Your work includes both video and audio. How do you see these two as working together?

FQ: I’m interested by the materiality and energy of both images and sounds, as well as what is generated by their interactions. Every project establishes a different type of association between them. The visuals display a reality that has been captured and transformed by a technological means, which can sometimes lead to total abstraction. In a similar manner, audio can be field recordings, sound synthesis or live amplification and processing. I combine them to create environments that engage the viewer’s body in space.


GH: Your work is presented in spaces of a variety of sizes and configurations–some wider and open, some narrower, some with screens on one wall and some with screens on several walls. Do you work with the managers of galleries and museums to design these spaces? What influence does the particular nature of the space have on the experience?

FQ: Since most of my works are installations and often integrate the viewer as an active component, space is an element that fully participates to define the experience. Sometimes a work is made for a space, and other times it’s adapted to that space. On occasion, I have reconfigured a work to the point of transforming into something else. I try to plan as much as I can with the venues and event organizers. I find site-specific works to be the most stimulating, since  they engage with their context and situation in a particularly deep manner.


Magnitude [tactile installation] (Source: F. QUevillon)
Magnitude [tactile installation] (Source: F. Quévillon)
GH: Water is a very immediate substance, something that people experience directly many times each day. Your work consists of recordings. How does the use of recordings influence the experience of your art?

FQ: Some of my works include matter as part of the system. For example, Les attracteurs étranges is a smoke screen altered by computer controlled ventilators. The use of live or recorded sounds, images or data allows me to manipulate temporality and the media themselves, to establish different connections between them and to observe phenomena with different perspectives. I find this practice  to be a good way of examining our interface-mediated experiences. It allows us to explore the ways that technology transforms our perception, interpretation and relation to the world.


GH: Are there any experiences in your early life that left you with a strong impression of water, snow and ice? 

FQ: Maybe at a subconscious level, living in Québec exposed me to these elements on a regular basis. Water, and its different states, is metaphorically and symbolically rich. Growing up at a time when environmental awareness was being put forward had an influence on the work that I do today. My childhood memories include acid rain, melting ice caps, oil spills, toxic leaks, drought , the loss of the ozone layer and other disasters caused by human activity.

Without being directly centered on climate change and these phenomena, Defrost evokes them while remaining open to other interpretations. The works that followed included computer vision systems so that the presence and movement of the audience influenced their unfolding. The public caused a block of ice to melt and then boil in États et intervalles, or to crack and reconfigure itself in Magnitudes. The audience had an impact but was unable to control these phenomena, or at least not precisely. Even though Waiting for Bárðarbunga, shown in this link , is focused on volcanic and geothermal activities, the anticipation of the subglacial stratovolcano’s eruption can symbolize different types of catastrophe that we apprehend, monitor and forecast while not knowing exactly how to intervene to prevent or stop them.


Magnitude [multimedia installation] (source: F. Quévillon)
Magnitude [multimedia installation] (source: F. Quévillon)
GH: Do you see your work as influenced by the history and culture of Québec? Does your work comment on the future of Québec, Canada and the world?

FQ: A location’s climate and geography are embedded in cultural identity and history, so I’m influenced by them but my work isn’t specific to my origins. For instance, in several of the installations I made in the early 2000s, Iceland’s geological activity and some of its environmental features were more present than those of Québec or Canada. It took a long time before I actually went to Iceland, in 2014 for an artist residency. Like the Idea of the North that is at the basis of both Francophone and Anglophone Canadian culture, or the myth of Thule in European culture, I try to convey both reality and imagination with my works, to probe the unknown and the uncertainty of our world’s future. Imaging systems, remote sensors, satellites, statistical models, data visualizations are some of the instruments that we use to understand imperceptible phenomena and to survey inaccessible and hostile environments. I comment on these technologies and on the changing nature of contemporary representations at the same time as I use them. In other words, the technologies that have impacted nature are not separable from the technologies that allow us to apprehend nature.