Three original works of art by Scott Greene:
An update on Romanticism
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
For his Albuquerque artistic debut, Scott Greene has worked more than six months on a large painting of an Old World sailing ship being battered by a stormy sea (as they tend to be pictured), its decks littered with junk and… garden flowers. In fact, the ship appears to be made entirely of the white criss-cross garden fencing that spells suburbia, its foliage dancing cheerfully over the waves.
The sheer size and realism of “Ship Shape“ is likely to stop people in their tracks at the “Albuquerque Now” exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum, and suggest why Greene has not been (as he delicately puts it) “a good fit” for New Mexico. His painstakingly executed, undeniably bizarre renditions of typical Romantic genres—stormy seas, pastoral scenes, impressionistic landscapes—come loaded with complex imagery and wink-wink art-historical references that most people are just not going to get.
It’s not that the artist is trying to be obscure. “I do want people to be engaged in the work, to make people stop and think about things—the environment, politics,” he says earnestly. But Greene’s way of moving people has always been just this: to construct a fantastic illusion seeded with winks that play against its stereotyped reality.
Greene says he actually fights this tendency in himself, to be a painter who cannot “just paint a tree” without making references to all the ways that painters have depicted trees in the past, and what they meant by it. “But there are a lot of voices in my head,” he grins. “And I have to be true to them.”
Easily misunderstood as cynical pastiche, an art-historical mash-up that draws mustaches on the Mona Lisa, Greene protests that his work is completely sincere. In fact, the sheer effort and technique that go into it suggest that he is not just making a reference to an historical painting style, but actually inhabiting it. Maybe that’s because he believes in it—or wants to.
Raised in Denver, he grew up fascinated by art and went straight to the California College of Arts and Crafts, completing his BFA in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1981. Both schools struck him as disappointing, however, for their traditional focus on technique in drawing and painting.
Greene wanted to do something more “contemporary.” At the time, he was making images of cars, trucks, and tires, part of the daily landscape of living in California—but in a dreamy impressionistic style suggestive of Monet’s lily pond. He credits the 1982 movie “Koyaanisqatsi“ with setting the tone: “There was something about that idea that I felt like I needed to express—life speeding by, things wearing down.”
Greene continued painting cars for nearly a decade, as he and his wife moved to New Mexico in 1989, settled into a converted winery in historic downtown Bernalillo, and he earned an MFA at the University of New Mexico in 1994.
It was the art history classes at UNM that influenced his next direction. “I found the structure under all that work I had been doing unconsciously,” he says of his car paintings. “I wasn’t (consciously) looking to Leonardo, but he was (also) painting atmosphere. What he did is still revolutionary.”
Awakened to the historical connections between style and impact, Greene discovered in his constitution what he calls the “sickness” of nineteenth-century Romanticism, and applied it to the world around him. In his hands, a pastoral scene of sheep grazing by a river might include fifty-five-gallon drums of radioactive waste or burning tires. His thesis painting “Exhaust,“ gargantuan at eleven by sixteen feet, references Theodor Gericault’s instantly recognizable “Raft of the Medusa,“ but with the unfortunates clinging to a sinking semi truck cab spilling household goods and consumer waste.
Romanticism, in other words, becomes contemporary again with Greene—not as a wry postmodern reference, but as an aesthetic and political position that declares itself as current and fresh. Romanticism’s revolt against the scientific rationalism of the Industrial Age, in favor of emotional extremes, the fantastic, and the sublimity of nature “fly in the face of the avant-garde—the newest thing,” Greene says with a touch of contempt.
He has never been drawn to abstraction, in fact, favoring a realistic painting style precisely because he believes in the power and promise of illusion—while also apparently unable to exclude from this dream the sad objects and tattered hopes of consumer society. “It’s the idea of making the best of what’s still around,” he says.
Another thematic development came the year he spent in the Roswell Artist in Residency program in 1996. That’s when satellite dishes began popping up everywhere in his paintings, because “it struck me as a traditional subject, like an ear in the landscape.” After seeing a few of these paintings, I promise you will start to puzzle over the satellite dishes in our landscape, too.
The oil baron who funds the Roswell residency, Don Anderson, helped put Greene on the map when he purchased “Exhaust“ that year and hung it prominently in his Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. Greene has since had multiple solo shows, mostly in the San Francisco area, where he is represented by perhaps the city’s most respected gallery for contemporary art, Catherine Clark. He has been on the cover of New American Painting, was featured in Harper’s magazine, and has appeared five times in ArtWeek.
In New Mexico, though, Greene remains a relative unknown. He and his wife Ann, also a painter, operate a printmaking business called Hirsh Greene Press that specializes in intaglio and relief printing of fine art. The industrial-size equipment dominates the main area of their barn-like home.
Greene acknowledges that moving to New Mexico (because land was affordable here) somewhat determined his artistic obscurity. But he can’t separate that from what this place has contributed: “Roswell, the big studio, my wife having a nice garden,” and a rural place to raise their eleven-year-old daughter.
In a place like New Mexico, a painter can spend six months painting a huge canvas using tiny brushes, adding painstaking detail to an elaborate fantasy, just for the grandness of the vision, the sheer defiance of practicality. A committed Romantic, Greene admits his is “a pretty stressful way to live,” but he clearly believes in the validity—which his life here has done nothing to contradict—of paying tribute to a force greater than money or science: the sublime.