Tony Greene's paintings look not so much painted as extruded. Impasto doesn't even begin to describe the raised filigrees of flowers and other motifs layered over tinted photographs of tender young men, taxidermy stags and barren landscapes. Reminiscent of Victorian ironwork — a form that emulated nature even as the Industrial Revolution swept it away — Greene's paintings possess the same sense of nostalgia for a vanished world.
Greene died from AIDS-related complications in 1990. A contemporary of L.A. artists Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins, he has largely been overlooked, but this year he was featured in the Whitney Biennial. That inclusion as well as a tribute show in Chicago and this modest but intriguing exhibition at the MAK Center at the Schindler House suggest that his work is ripe for reevaluation.
As Opie notes in a video accompanying the Whitney exhibition, Greene responded early to the devastation wrought by AIDS. Indeed, his almost three-dimensional forms can be seen as a kind of offering to those who have passed, like laying flowers on a grave. In "John" from 1989, the flowers echo the whorls on a tattooed arm. "Ed" from 1990 is a portrait of a man's mouth framed with curling blooms and his name written in rune-like letters, but there is also a strange and ominous "X" across his nose. "Exhausted Autumn" takes a more metaphorical approach, juxtaposing what look like wilted cornstalks over the image of a stag, a symbol of virility.
"Through the Cracks" from 1987 is a set of 36 tiles, each collaged with a man's obituary. Some are more explicit than others about the cause of death (presumed to be AIDS-related), but all are embalmed in a wash of red-brown paint, the color of earth and dried blood. The paint actually makes the obituaries a bit difficult to decipher; in the process, we become cognizant of how reading is a physical act. Even in such text-based work, Greene brings us back to our bodies and their limitations.
The artist was unusual in his preference for painting instead of the photo-text strategies adopted by many of his contemporaries. The exhibition not only reflects a recuperation of this choice but injects it into a new context: modern architecture.
At first, Greene's small, gem-like paintings, enclosed in somewhat precious, hand-painted frames, appear out of place on the stark, streamlined walls of the Schindler House. The paintings are as florid and intricate as the setting is understated and plain.
Yet, with their melancholy physicality, the works actually rhyme with the old house, highlighting the decaying wood, the cracks in the floors, the dingy wall panels. As the paintings are ruins of innocence lost to an early death, the Schindler House is itself a ruin of a utopian ideal of living. In this sense, it's the perfect place for Greene's elegiac impulses. Together, they form a memorial to the faded notion that life is perfectible.