Stephen Greene: 1917-1999
By Joe Fyfe
Paintings that reveal more over the passage of time do so through their strength in handling their contradictions. As Stephen Greene entered into his final decade of painting, the tension between what he possessed and what remained unresolved became the subject of his work. In Expulsion No.13, from 1984, for example, the halting sinuosity of the broken curves and flashes of luminous folds are subservient to the dark symbology of the painting’s fiery oranges and crimsons. Greene’s involvement with Romantic themes of spirituality and nature came from the influence of his immediate forbears, the Abstract-Expressionists, but he is just as much a late modernist painter. Greene’s ability to draw on aspects of his literary and art-historical imagination while he remained aware of the continuing codification of painterly abstraction compels our attention.
It is Greene’s impulse towards the visionary that masks the painting’s underlying intimacy. This begins to change in the 90’s. In Pleasure Dome #13, from 1994, for example, a smallish horizontal that, like many of the works, depends upon a succession of vertical furrows to organize the composition, Greene reveals himself more directly through referencing the personae and habitat of the artist. Heightened by his interest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge via Gustave Moreau, No.13. is a cabinet picture, a kind of chamber piece. We find Greene enraptured with improvised revisional markmaking. The newer direct drawing style has appropriated such devices as the wood-graining tool for scratching lines into wet paint. The artist’s ability to affect brusque revisions nods towards Moreau’s authorial techniques. This late 19th century artist often bluntly redrew some of his intricately painted compositions as they seemed to arrive at a point of finish, effectively reasserting the presence of the artist as maker.
The “pleasure dome” title also refers to the artist’s studio, in Coleridge’s poem, ‘Kubla Khan” was akin to the painter’s ivory tower. It is a sacred, light-filled space that allows the artist to observe nature in its savagery. It also appears in the poem as a skull, an image that is also in a number of Greene’s works on paper.
Every move in Greene’s later paintings seemed to demand a new kind of mark. There are delicate scrapes of thin paint; baroque ripples where he has let the palette knife make an S down a section of the canvas, there are fogs of oily pigment and sprouts of dry-brushed interior corners and thickish blottings amid scraped ground.
The liquid, orchestral fragments of movement that constitute the action in the late works, such as Voyage from 1996, address the viewer indirectly. The drama of the earlier decade is subdued but the work unfolds, murmuringly, for longer. Dull greens and grays set off feathers of pale pink and yellow at the bottom edge, while the larger areas inexplicably glow from putty-like colors that must come from mixing on the canvas. In late Greene, his means carry deeper meanings and the oppositions between palette and painting and brush and metal tool and reality and dream sometimes merge. Addition and subtraction of oily pigment reveal the painting as a woven adherent surface but it is transcended by the silvery light of Greene’s intensely variegated ground.