Tony Greene at Iceberg Projects – Exhibition Review

April 2014. 

header image: installation view “Tony Greene” at Iceberg Projects

Tony Greene’s heavily impasto’ed canvases allude to a kind of formal paradox, at once encasing the idyllic object of same-sex desire (torsos and lips garnered from beefcake magazines) in layers of thorny ornament, while simultaneously flattening the picture plane into a decorative, tarty tableau. In her 1991 essay on Greene, Pressuring The Surface of Reality, Liz Kotz wrote that the canvases aim for melodrama, offering “a confluence of the tacky and the tragic, the painterly and the photographic (…)”. Assuredly, whatever the exact aim, the conflicting nature of Greene’s canvases owes to their gravity. Greene’s work has seduced viewers since it’s heyday in the late 1980s, and, if the recent surge in recognition is any indication, has continued to influence and inspire younger artists since his death of AIDS related complications in 1990.

In 1991, a collection of essays was published on the occasion of Sweet Oleander, a retrospective of Tony Greene’s short but prolific career, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). The bound collection, Exhausted Autumn, counts among its luminary contributors such queer icons as Dennis Cooper, Robert Glück, and Doug Ishar. The volume was edited by artist Richard Hawkins, who, along side Cal-Arts classmate Catherine Opie, curated the selection of Greene’s work featured at this year’s Whitney Biennial of American Art. In 1988, two years before compiling Exhausted Autumn, Hawkins had notably co-organized Against Nature: An Exhibition of Homosexual Men with Dennis Cooper, in which Greene also appeared. “…Earnestly dedicated to the many lasting memories of Tony Greene,” the spirit of Exhausted Autumns is reborn at Iceberg Projects in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, among one of the first exhibitions of Greene’s work since the early 1990s.

Organized by Chicago-based artist, curator and writer John Neff, Greene’s work is exhibited with a number of younger, queer-identified artists intimately entangled in Greene’s eminence and legacy, which is, in effect, the legacy of gay-male representation. Over two decades since the artist’s death, in a different (albeit still volatile) political climate, this becomes more broadly the legacy of the messy subject, the queer spirit. Among the artists featured along side Greene are Elijah Burgher, Edie Fake, Miller & Shellabarger, Paul P., Dean Sameshima, Scott Treleaven, and Latham Zearfoss.

Exhausted Autumn was the anchor of a reading Kevin Killian delivered at Iceberg Project’s last weekend. As Kevin spoke in the gallery, his eyes drifted away from the printed page and to the many works hung on the walls, some Greene’s, other’s not, as though tracing the invisible string or artery that ties them all to one another. The jacket of Exhausted Autumn is deeply green, Kevin thinks a pun on Tony’s name. It is a small but formidable catalogue, full of love and admiration and pining. A deep sadness and quiet filled me.

Greene was one of several artists to be posthumously represented at this year’s Whitney. Among the numerous other exhibitors was a significant number of other queer-identified artists. Indeed, this heightened queer presence at The Whitney has given rise to rumors that the so-called Velvet Mafia had a hand in the curatorial process.1 The rumored influence of this legendary cabal forefronts a less sinister social element operating within American contemporary art, a cultural thread which has loosely connected certain artists since the Age of AIDS and prior – by necessity, for security, in an effort to evaluate shared experience, whether of great loss or great joy.

Greene’s legacy is situated in the larger chain of queer visibility and expression, abruptly and catastrophically wounded by the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Greene’s life and work have been an anchoring point for a generation of widely influential artists of the last two decades. That he should reemerged as a point of connection to interrupted histories for a younger generation of artists and thinkers in the 21st century is a sincere testament to the scope of his influence and the depth of his import in the queer canon.

[1] Art Historian David Getsy responds to Jason Foumberg in “Is There a Gay Mafia in the Art World?” It can be read here.