Art Palace Gallery, Austin
Through June 17, 2009
by Claire Ruud
Nathan Green, Installation view of Happy Birthday Moon, Art Palace Gallery
Nathan Green’s large-scale paintings transport the eye into a euphoric world of color and pattern. Children’s artwork is an obvious influence here; Green fills his paintings with blocky shapes and bright paint straight from the tube. Crowded, thickly layered and vibrant, Green’s paintings feel urgent, as if they’re trying to fend off their own physical limits—as wells as a nebulous darkness.
Green describes his paintings as a “search for the ecstactic.” He looks for places in American culture where we believe ecstasy might be located—in a natural wonder like Aurora Borealis, in man-made wonders like the pyramids, or in the triumph of a field goal, or even in a really good iTunes playlist. In Monday Nite (2009), mammoth football goalposts provide a visual gateway into a fantastical castle christened by a setting orange sun: fairytale ecstasy within the escape of a rousing football game. In On the Road to Salvation Mountain (2009), a whirlwind of purple abstraction overtakes a car with sweet-lashed eyes for headlights as it chugs down a highway road. Three pyramids rise in the background while an all-seeing eye, stars and a yin-yang symbol hover amidst the fog: mystical ecstasy within ancient civilizations or, for that matter, on a long stretch of highway way out west. The ecstasy in these paintings is one of innocence, playfulness and exuberance.
With Happy Birthday Moon, the artist’s current show at Art Palace, Green begins to expand his work past the edge of the frame and into the gallery. Still somewhat hesitantly, Green’s paintings and objects are beginning to fuse into one giant painting that is literally inhabitable by the viewer. At one end of the main gallery, Green has installed a huge pressboard wall and painted it plaid with his signature bright colors, a pattern that echoes that of Recycled Paint(ing) (2009) in the front gallery. A small black and white abstraction of collaged brushstrokes hangs in a white frame on the colorful pressboard wall. That piece, Detail of Aurora Borealis (2009), looks like an excerpt of the pattern on the computer screen in Aurora Borealis Playlist (2009) on the other side of the gallery. Some playful sculptures—such as a snowman made of concrete and spray paint and an anthropomorphic conglomeration of felt, googley eyes, and other children’s craft material—add to the tableau. But the installation, with the three dimensional works huddled together on pedestals in the center of the room, is tentative. Green needs to commit, to insist that we inhabit his world. And in the commitment, Green might begin to clarify the relationship between his frenzied cheerfulness and the amorphous threat that lurks behind it.
Throughout the exhibition, this dark menace keeps seeping through the cracks, pressing down on Green’s exuberance, threatening to annihilate it. Futility lurks in the thick, graying branches glued and bolted together into a “tree” that will never bloom again. Darkness threatens in the shiny black paint that half-eclipses a sun. Cliché dilutes sentiment in Worlds Best Boss (2009), where a pathetic mug of pinkish brown liquid deflates the significance of the compliment. In these moments, Green’s innocence and playfulness feel insufficient to hold the darkness at bay. It’s a poignant battle, and I’d like to see Green engage in it wholeheartedly, rather than keep retreating to his happy place. We desperately need this joy and lightheartedness, but we need them to fight, and we need to know what they’re fighting against.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.