Tony Greene's Posthumous Triple Feature

Tony Greene, "Puerile Gestures,"1989
Tony Greene, "Puerile Gestures," 1989.

The artist Tony Greene died in 1990, but 2014 has arguably been the biggest year of his career. His work has been represented in three major exhibitions -- at the Whitney Biennial in New York; and at the Hammer Museum's Made in L.A. Biennial and concurrent solo exhibition at the MAK Center -- both of which are currently in view in Los Angeles through September 7.

It was kind of a big deal when it was announced that Greene's work would be in the Whitney for the 2014 iteration of the Biennial juggernaut. While not unprecedented, including the work of an artist posthumously in a snapshot survey of contemporary art could be seen as an odd choice -- especially since Greene tragically passed away quite young (age 35) and relatively long ago (almost 25 years now). But the truth is, the Whitney and similar of-the-moment exhibitions like it (for example the Hammer) expressly treat not only art being made now, but also art and artists that have been heretofore underappreciated -- art whose time, one might say, has finally arrived.

Before Greene died -- from complications due to AIDS, which is extremely relevant to appreciating his work -- he was an established and beloved part of the CalArts family and an active figure on the political and social scenes of the LGBTQ community as well -- two social groups whose brave ideas and progressive stances were interwoven with each other and into the modern history of L.A. art, especially around the end of 1980s and into the early 1990s. Greene is far from the only artist to represent a bridge between these communities, but his work directly took on the personal, social, political, and art historical issues that link do them -- a fact very much on the minds of artists Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins when they curated a capsule exhibition of Greene's mixed media paintings for the Whitney Biennial this year.

MAK Center, "Mirror Mirror" (detail 2) | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot
MAK Center, "Mirror Mirror" (detail 2).  | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot.

Painting was not fashionable at the time Greene was active, much less figurative painting -- conceptualism and social/systems works were the order of the day -- and Greene in a way used that contrarian stance to attract further attention to the disruptive narrative that animated his romantic-seeming work. He favored thickly painted works with an immediacy, sensuality, and a quality of aggressive handmade-ness, using resin and impasto, handmade frames, and personal narrative -- all supremely outre at the time. Examples of these paintings (and in fact some of the exact same paintings) with their salient form and content -- as well as several diverse yet related series -- are included in Room of Advances at the MAK Center Schindler House in West Hollywood (through September 7, with a special panel discussion on August 20th, Art Production and the AIDS Crisis: A Tale of Three Cities). The exhibition occupies every room and some nooks and crannies of the Schindler, constituting a mid-scale but impressively comprehensive survey, curated as with the Whitney Biennial by artists who knew Greene -- in this case Judie Bamber and Monica Majoli, both of whom loaned works from their personal collections for the show, as did Hawkins.

Moving through the rooms of the Schindler House itself helps build the story of Greene's career. Beginning with "Letters," which are single-character paintings referring to writings, that signal the ornate, almost Baroque aesthetic that manifests throughout the show, as well as telegraphing his relationship to the written word and the symbolist narrative that also permeates. Installed together with "Mirror, Mirror" which are brass plates with prose and poems installed on a grid of tabletops, both effects are heightened. "Reading Area," presents some of his books (many referring to the texts in "Mirror Mirror") as well as photographs of the densely populated inspiration and process wall in his studio by Catherine Opie. It's an inspired use of the Schindler House space, generating an intimate, pensive, creative moment in a glassed-in reading nook facing the lawn. The authors include Marcel Proust, Jack London, Andre Gide, Gary Indiana, Herman Melville, and an anthology edited by Richard Hawkins called "Exhausted Autumn" which resurfaces as the name of a painting in the adjoining gallery. Though a small element, this situation expresses deeply the poignancy of this gallery's existence in an empty home.

MAK Center, "Reading Area" books | photo by Shana Nys Dambrot
MAK Center, "Reading Area" books. | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot.
Tony Greene, "Room of Advances," 1988 | Photo: Joshua White
Tony Greene, "Room of Advances," 1988. | Photo: Joshua White.

The paintings themselves often involve thickly layered oil and glaze, sealing and sometimes obfuscating photographs, usually of hot guys. For example, "Room of Advances" is the piece that lends its title to the show. A five-panel work, of which as the curators describe it, "the center panel is an image of a man's nude torso with arms outstretched, flanked by a repeated image of a mid-century modern interior. The Schindler House -- with its history of utopianism made manifest in actual domestic living -- is ostensibly the modern domestic interior longed for in Greene's work." This singular piece is installed along with a series of landscapes with unctuous textured surfaces, saturated palettes, and expressive titles like the aforementioned "Exhausted Autumn," "Opinion of Silence," "Their Waxing Prose," and "His Puerile Gestures." These works are heavily wrought and very tactile, more evocative or mannerist than realistic in how they depict their flora and fauna. "Untitled (Wes, Ed, and Matt)" are three portraits, all incorporating their subject's names in the compositions in a gothic script suitable for a memorial modality despite the sexiness and sensuality of the imagery. Finally, "Through the Cracks" occupies its space like a war memorial. Newspaper clippings of obituaries of various tone and degrees of truth are arrayed there, shellacked onto wood boards, the lot yellowing and fading with age now. It's installed facing wide open French doors leading to the semi-wild and verdant backyard in a happy accident in which the space continues meeting the work halfway for impact and meaning.

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Meanwhile the Hammer's Made in LA 2014 (also through 9/7) presents Amid Voluptuous Calm, a show-within-a-show using Greene's work as the touchstone for a broader look at the communities he helped define, inspire, and galvanize. Critically and popularly regarded as one of the show's highlights, the project was organized by David Frantz, the curator at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. The whole Hammer show is (curators say unintentionally) informed by the prevalence of crafted communities, collectives, and social circles -- including this one on Greene and his. Positing his influential legacy and the loose circle's "collective aspirations... in an historical show of gay and lesbian artists working closely together in the 1980s-early 90s," it's worth noting that most of them also went to CalArts and/or Otis and/or showed at LACE. As the curator's statement goes on to explain, his treatment of Greene's work is intended to "place it in dialogue with other queer artists in Los Angeles whose work similarly tackled issues of desire, mortality, and trauma. This concise 'show-within-a-show' only hints at the numerous ways visual art, poetry, activism, performance, and S&M converged, and how notions of queerness -- a term just making its way into the lexicon -- informed artistic production for a community of artists." Greene's circle thus defined includes not only Opie and Hawkins, but many contemporaries like those included here such as Ron Athey, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, and also both Judie Bamber and Monica Majoli. (The last two are the curators of the MAK Center show.) These three shows taken alone and together more than succeed in positioning Greene, deservedly, as the touchstone of a true circle, and at the same time offer new audiences a fresh way to explore the past -- via the art historical legacies that shaped the modern world.

Tony Greene, "Untitled, Yellow Pour,"1990
Tony Greene, "Untitled, Yellow Pour,"1990.
MAK Center, Installation | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot
MAK Center installation. | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot.
MAK installation | Photo: Joshua White
MAK Center installation. | Photo: Joshua White.
Untitled (Matt) at the MAK Center | Photo by Shana Nys Dambrot
Untitled (Matt) at the MAK Center. | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot.

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