Brent Green's digital video world flickers like the rapidly blinking eye of an early movie camera.
Ghost-ridden winds seem to leak through the cracks in shadowy handmade props as the artist
tells gothic tales of family life in rural Pennsylvania. Shorts like Hadacol Christmas, Paulina
Hollers, Carlin, Lincoln and Louisville/Gravity are sketches for a grotesque autobiography,
poked onto the screen as if with the nib of a spider's foot, dipped in black humor and the ink of
Paulina Hollers (2006), for example, is the tale of an obnoxious boyhood friend who shoots birds
with a BB gun and presently suffers a well-deserved, too-close encounter with a moving school
bus. The boy's grieving mother, Paulina, goes mad and commits suicide. Green imagines her as
a demented Demeter scrabbling through the shallow earth of her garden to discover the sallow
skies of hell just inches beneath the surface. The stop-motion props Green uses to tell the story
- a handmade school bus, a crooked house with furniture and individually carved floorboards -
give way to an animated world of remarkable graphic presence, at once awkward and weirdly
graceful. Green's drawing style, featuring hat-like trees and comic droopy birds flapping
solemnly across the screen, has been compared to Dr. Seuss. But this is a Dr. Seuss who has,
as the old American phrase goes, "seen the elephant" - and it wasn't Horton. Beneath a light
layer of whimsy, Green manages to deliver the authentic texture and ambivalence of dream,
shading in and out of nightmare. Green's low-fi techniques involve sheets of acetate, scotch
tape and Sharpie pens. He uses digital programs to animate the individual cels he creates, but
the rustic, very homemade look of the finished product couldn't be any more raw or expressive if
it were scratched directly onto celluloid. The animated portions are, in fact, reminiscent of a
variety of printmaking techniques. Layers of semi-transparent cels are like chine colle, the line
quality runs from harsh intaglio to softer focus, lithograph-like smudging.
In fact the allusiveness of Green's work is very broad. At various points his images recall Belgian
artist James Ensor's grotesque impasto mask paintings, or outsider-ish demons when he
represents a monstrous engine/animal, glaring at us from its stall in the bowels of hell. A skeletal
figure shovels coal into the creature's belly as it pumps up and down on its haunches - taking
the image in yet another, incongruous direction as it calls to mind Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney's
classic cartoon Steamboat Willy. As an incidental effect of the drawing on acetate process, both
Paulina and her son appear to be transported in hell in semi-transparent boxes, something like
Francis Bacon's hellish lines of force in his iconic 1953 painting based on Velasquez's portrait of
Pope Innocent X.
The show at the Sculpture Center consists of a moody display of Green's props set up in the
main gallery off E. 123rd, plus screenings of the films in the old David E. Davis studio located
directly in front of the Sculpture Center building on Euclid Avenue. Although the objects Green
made over the past several years are often works of art in their own right, they're hard to
decipher or appreciate properly if you haven't seen the films first. All the same, dim lighting and
floor-to-ceiling drawings and stories scrawled on huge sheets of brown paper covering two large
walls, make for an unnerving experience.
The little house on display is hewn from wood Green found around his farm in Cressona,
Pennsylvania. Two of its thick exterior walls have been cut away and rest a little to one side,
exposing the interior. A third wall in the back peels down from the top. This hoodoo doll house,
like all Green's props, is a numinous object steeped in some flavor of backwoods shamanism,
conjuring whatever powers there may be to join the strange human dance of joy and pain. In the
center of the gallery a flaxen-haired, hollowed-eyed, nearly life-sized wooden figure represents
his aunt, the subject of the film Carlin (2006). During Green's boyhood his Aunt Carlin moved
into the family home, proceeding to die by stages from diabetes and the effects of multiple
amputations. Here she sits in a homemade wheelchair, hooked up to taxidermy chickens.
Mounted on wires, their wings outspread as if in flight, they seem as if they're about to pull her
up and away to a brighter world, but also like intravenous devices, pumping the plasma of
American folklore into her wooden bones. If Green's hell looks not so much like Dr. Seuss per se
as a Dr. Seuss rendering of a Matthew Brady photo of the aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run, it's
due to the artist's abiding interest in the darkness and power of American history. His recent
three-minute short Walt Whitman's Brain tells the fate of that great poet's organ at the hands of
19th century scientists. The even briefer, oddly touching Abe Lincoln (2006) is mostly a simple
meditation showing the president in profile, wearing his stovepipe hat. The sea monkey-ish
forms twirling and floating like paisley ghosts inside the hat are, the handwritten text informs us,
"the Civil War dead."
A born storyteller, Green's narrative and musical soundtracks are distinguished by offhand
poetic gems and images of surprising power: Carlin is "long hollowed of health." In Hadacol
Christmas (2005), the main character is a Santa Claus addicted to cough elixir. He has no wife,
explains Green, just a scarecrow in the yard. "The scarecrow would come into the house late at
night/And hand Claus the crows she had found. Some were wrapped up and strangled in her
skirt." Green narrates in a breathless, rapid voice, sometimes ranting, sometimes mumbling or
lost behind music, matching the all-over trembling and deep ambiguity of his production values.
Green is also a musician, working with the Chicago-based experimental band Califone and his
own group the Magik Markers to make several of the soundtracks here. Banjo, fiddle, saw and
drum generate a deeply textured backdrop for his holy roller-style narrative crescendos.
Green, who is 28 years old, is self-taught. Obviously he did a good job: Paulina Hollers was
funded by the Creative Capital Foundation and aired at the Sundance Festival early this year.
His films have been seen at the Getty Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum and the Rotterdam
International Film Festival, among other notable venues over the course of the past two years.
Reviews have appeared in most major art publications, including Bomb, Art Forum, Art in
America and the New York Times. Sculpture Center Director Ann Albano is to be congratulated
for spotting this rising star during a recent visit to New York and bringing him here.
Volume 15, Issue 33
Published December 19th, 2007 ]