Here is an interview I have done with artist Elliott Green. Elliott is one of the artists in the show Three Painters at Duck Creek, which I curated for the Arts Center at Duck Creek. I enjoyed our conversation tremendously and I thank Elliott for being a part of the fantastic show.
Hiroyuki: What prompted you to pursue visual expression?
Elliott: In college I was majoring in literature, but a girlfriend of mine ran the slide projector for art history lectures, so I sat in on those classes, and in the dark lecture halls I was gratefully transfixed and transported through time and all over the world. It was a beautiful escape, and I started to draw in my notebooks, and finally dropped out of the University of Michigan in my third year to move to New York City to learn how to paint. When I landed there in the summer of 1981, I took a couple of month-long courses at the Art Students League, then painted on my own ever after.
Hiroyuki: So, you felt it was a “beautiful escape” when you saw the images in the art history classes. Were you conscious about what you were escaping from? Did the momentum to quit school and move to NYC have anything to do with it, or were you simply under the spell of what art could do for you?
Elliott: That’s a very good question! I was bored and frustrated: mostly with myself, the Midwest where I grew up, and my waning interest in writing fiction. I felt I was in a holding pen — and I had ambitions to do something good and tangible — to test and prove my Self in the larger world; but I didn’t know how that was going to take shape. I was inexperienced. I was immature and impatient. But it turns out that I did find my life’s work after all — in making paintings.
Hiroyuki: It sounds like you had something in you that needed to come out. Naturally, I think of the explosive energy, poised serenity, and exquisite dynamism of your current work. The colors, movements and rhythms are just bursting out of the canvases. I’ve read that the current direction emerged after your trip to Rome as well as your move to Athens, New York. What do you think has allowed you to be expressive in this way? It seems that your interests in visual elements themselves has been liberated, as opposed to your former expression through recognizable figures, the narratives and more limited usage of visual elements.
Elliott: Actually, catharsis has been a leitmotif in my work, and that was probably something I gleaned from studying literature and film. Often in my paintings — from out of some placid zone of quiet painting–a loud gestural eruption occurs. It’s dramatic, and it’s something I can do by heightening or lowering my physical — my muscular and emotional energy, like a musician or an actor. Another narrative that occurs a lot is to have a constricted space that blasts open into a vaster one. A remarkable thing happened in Rome: the density and compression of the two-dimensional abstract paintings I had been making for several years expanded outward when that information was transposed into the landscape format, into perspective: that was like an explosion. The additional space gave the previously contained subject matter freedom to move from the distance to the forefront, and it was like an infusion of fresh air. It was liberating. And the shapes, like the round or sharp ones of the mountains, took on characteristics–recognizable personalities–like the figures I had painted years before.
Hiroyuki: The reference to landscape does work wonderfully to express the vast scale while also putting the element of time in a geological time frame. Combined with rich visual characters weaving narratives, the dramatic expression certainly brings out a strong emotional quality. But then, all that merely presents a challenge of actually constructing a functional whole which you manage very well. How does your painting start? Can you describe your making process? Also, were you always interested in colors? The striking use of colors can be seen as playful and absurd. In a way, it echoes your use of figures in your previous work.
Elliott: I start by brush-sketching on the canvas with a mixture of oil paint and graphite, and sometimes added colors, and I move without conscious intention for meaning, seemingly randomly, wiping away a lot. There is no pressure, because it is impossible to make a mistake at this stage. On one level, it is warming up my muscles, relaxing, emotionally diffusing, and at very least, spreading the tone on the canvas. If I make sweeping gestures that transverse the entire space, that will precede the final composition somehow, and foreshadow a theme. Motifs of shapes occur and through addition and subtraction some sensibility, personality and perspective arrive, and then I do more conscious analysis – editing, adding and tweaking to focus on the most interesting aspects and activities. For the benefit of the whole painting, some beautiful passages have to be sacrificed and painted over. Somehow, given enough time, a coherent vision arrives. I’ve made stop-action films of me making my paintings – and those let a viewer see how many decisions, reversals and revisions are involved, all of them impossible to predict.
I think I always had a sense of which colors got along beautifully with each other. I remember staring at children’s books as a toddler, immersed in them, like I was fascinated by their tonal harmonies. But not long after I began painting as an adult, I was looking for more excitement, and one way is to use colors that are unappealing on their own and to put them in with the naturally beautiful ones: the result is often very interesting. For example, the pink and green used to seem like a viscerally offensive combination to me, maybe because it reminded me of insects or rancid meat. But that is exactly where the meaning resides in color, in its good or bad associations with aspects of the world. A rainbow means connection and vomit means rejection — that’s good content even by itself, and then more dramatic when they conflict, or even better, if they somehow become unlikely friends.
Hiroyuki: I just saw the videos that show the progress at your site. I can relate to the dialogue you create with the dynamics. I know that there are moments of excitement, disappointment, frustration, a sense of achievement and so on. And there is nothing like feeling that everything merges as the process culminates in presenting a cohesive wholeness. I don’t always feel it but sometimes the moment is indeed a catharsis. And it is also fascinating that the complex dynamics often reveal “unlikely friends”, as you say, it strikes us with unknown chemistry in viscerally concrete ways. It allows us to explore and makes us see unknown potentials explode before us. Strange thing isn’t it? Are there any activities that go with your studio practice? I mean, everything ultimately does, but things you are conscious about to keep you going.
Elliott: I realized in Rome, where my eyeballs were literally aching from looking so hard, that new environments absolutely stimulate what I will paint. I think it’s because when shapes and tones fill my short-term memory to capacity, it speeds up my decision-making, and the improvisations flow faster. So, my method is to just look around me with an innocent curiosity. I never deliberately seek out material for painting, nor do I sketch with the intention of inserting some phenomena directly into a painting. I have to be honestly, genuinely compelled by something to study it and enjoy it for itself, and then maybe, sooner or later, some essence of that thing I was paying attention to will emerge effortlessly at just the right time and place in a painting.
Hiroyuki: I’ve heard artists talking about appreciating things around us visually. I always thought it was more about our attitude toward life in a general sense. But that makes sense. We learn and we are conditioned by our environment. Our actions and thoughts are affected by those. I was just talking to Eric Banks and he was also saying that he paints landscape paintings to inform himself about visual structures. And by choosing what to look at and how you look at it, you make a conscious decision (to a certain extent) as to where you sharpen your craft of expressing visually. That’s very interesting. It makes me think that artists should talk to each other more. Do you feel that you belong to an art community?
Elliott: Before a gallery represented my work in New York, I had no artist friends. But after 1989, when I was 29, I met many artists, mostly at first through another painter and sculptor named David Humphrey, who is very popular and active in the art community. He’s what the sociologists call a Super Connector.
Pierogi, the gallery where I show in NYC, is run and owned by a couple, an artist and a poet, so there is a lot of mutual respect, and also camaraderie among the artists who show there. The openings at Pierogi have always been packed with many artists. Joe Amrhein, the co-director, had a show at Postmasters Gallery in Tribeca last year. His paintings are great, but he also thinks of the gallery as a long running conceptual artwork about the moving messages of contemporary artists. There have been many historical shows there — it was the most active gallery in Williamsburg for decades, before they moved to the Lower East Side a few years ago. Its existence has documented the emergence of that neighborhood as a cultural community. Many of the artists that show there are my friends. And then I have made new friends, like you, on Instagram, which has really widened my horizons by introducing me to the work of friends of friends and talented people outside my generation, younger and older.
Hiroyuki: Elliott, thank you for sharing your insights and angles on many topics on art and art communities. Do you have anything to add to our conversation?
Elliott: Not really. Just thank you for this chance to think about my work from a fresh perspective, and for your interest. I think your work is great, and it has been enjoyable to compare notes on the shape of our different quests, and to see how our work has arrived at its present place.
Elliott Green (b. 1960 Detroit, Michigan) attended the University of Michigan, where he studied World Literature and Art History. He moved to New York City in 1981 and has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Jules Guerin Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Residency, The Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant, a residency at the BAU Institute, Cassis, France, a MacDowell Colony Residency, and three residencies at Yaddo.