12 April 2012

Right Through the Wall: Gerrit Greve

[This is the second full article we've posted on Gerrit Greve, click here for the first.]

No Words #2 (acrylic, 2012)
   Among movie-watchers, there is still a gaping divide between those who favor the dancing of Fred Astaire and those who favor the dancing of Gene Kelly. Using their bodies to create shapes, rhythms, meanings, and moods, completely different from each other, Astaire and Kelly were undeniably consummate artists. Dance terminology is often used about movies even apart from actual dancers, for example, to discuss camera movements and editing techniques. In the world of painting, however, it was rare to think of the two-dimensional canvas as an arena for dance, until Monet and the Impressionists began to change that at the end of the 1800s, especially with such a series as Monet's Waterlilies. Interestingly, Impressionism was happening in the same  range of years when motion pictures were taking off. Then, in the 1940s and 50s, Jackson Pollock made a big splash with his wildly joyous paint splashing. It would seem that we would have more examples to think of in terms of motion-based painting, but it seems that such work often still does not get the recognition it deserves, as painters and painting-viewers are more accustomed to thinking and talking about paintings as if they were objects of stillness, conceived in stillness, applied in stillness, and to be thought of as still images. 
   Gerrit Greve's latest series, entitled No Words, represents a bold step forward in the realm of motion-based painting. Started after our interview with him less than two months ago, Greve's No Words series already numbers to at least 37 acrylic-painted canvases, which is one of the signs of the fruitfulness that lies in this direction. 

No Words #4 (acrylic, 2012)

   When Greve emailed us the first pics of the series, we immediately knew that we had to feature them. But after viewing them in person, we once again realized just how much can be lost through digital photos of paintings. The canvases that had affected us the least through the photographs ended up being some of the canvases that affected us the most in person, and some of the ones that had affected us the most through the photos, ended up affecting us even moreso in person. Viewing No Words in person, you are able to see the subtle color variations, and how those variations are altered under different lightings. You are able to see the full extent of how the colors pop against their backgrounds, and the places where impasto plays a key role, sometimes sneaking out from the canvas subtly like shark fins or rose thorns. But the main difference of viewing these pieces in person is in the backgrounds. Greve has established a series of inviting and sometimes menacing trompe l'oeil abstracts. Some, like No Words #6, open into an underwater paradise, others, like No Words #14, promise us rose gardens, others, like No Words #12, lift us up to the clouds, and still others, like No Words #4, usher us into a dark inferno. But most give the sensation of our being in a private dance studio, or even a smoke-filled cabaret where slim, nimble celebrants sway, twist, intertwine, and leap. The two yellow-dominated canvases, No Words #36 and 37, are the ones that lose the most through photography, as the yellow bands against the grey bands and the white background create the illusion of movement, an almost strobing effect, when viewed in person. The photos clue the viewer in to none of that.

No Words #6 (acrylic, 2012)
   During our conversation with Greve, he resisted using the word explorations to describe the series, saying: "Explore connotes a sense of timidity or of inching in cautiously. I felt none of that. I jumped into these boldly, with complete self-assurance."
    We have to admit, that is pretty apparent. And that is one of the main differences between this series and Greve's previous free-flowing abstract expressionist work, such as his Underwater series and his calligraphy pieces. These strokes are clearer and more full. Another difference is the depth that has been created. The older series were painted more as two-dimensional works, in line with what Pollock was doing, closing off the surface, and keeping viewers on this side of the potential depth. The last difference is that these pieces were created now, as opposed to years ago. That point may not mean much to viewers, but to artists, it represents the difference between creating and not creating at all.

No Words #12 (acrylic, 2012)

   Greve is an avid reader of all things art, and among the material that has lately been on the front of his mind are Raphael Rubinstein's 2009 and 2012 essays on Provisional painting. Rubinstein posits that it has become a daunting thing for painters to try to make work that summarizes, corrects, and progresses from the intimidatingly huge canon of great paintings, so in order to continue creating which is a burning must for most artists, they have developed a provisional, or temporary style of work that seeks to speak only for the present. Rubinstein suggests that this type of work doesn't try to be great, it might even border art that is bad or unfinished.
   Whether we agree or not with Rubenstein's idea, and whether we agree or not that Greve's work applies under the Provisional banner (probably not, since Greve strives for a sublime blend of movement, line and color, creating masterpieces of the moment, whereas Provisional painting seems to suggest a complete disregard for intentions of the sublime or of masterpiece), the fact remains that that idea was part of the fuel that got No Words from the realm of nothingness into the realm of being, and for that we are grateful.

No Words #14 (acrylic, 2012)

   As we've mentioned in our earlier article on him, Greve has studied dance, and often employs his training in his painting style. He has described this series matter-of-factly as a series of dances. Greve hints that he may have had a particular image or emotion in mind while painting, though when he looks now at a finished canvas, he is far enough removed to view it with new eyes, open to completely different reactions. More important is the fact that Greve has freed himself up enough from trying to replicate a figurative image so that his strokes soar in ways that even Monet's didn't. And yet, as free as they are, they contain an order or a logic that keeps our eyes engaged. Greve's words lead us to believe that that engaging logic comes from Greve's ability to envision himself actually inside the piece. And if that is true, what attracts our eyes about these paintings are the trails of his movements, the ghost of his dancing unbound by the human form and by gravity, dancing that Astaire and Kelly could only dream of.

No Words #25 (acrylic, 2012)

No Words #37 (acrylic, 2012)
   Being that we are art critics and use words to speak about art, we were initially a little affronted by the title of the series, as if it were a caution to not try to speak about this art. So we asked whether This Is My House would be a more appropriate and welcoming title, as each piece seems to hold a distinct room and mood, with the space of each one being completely dominated by Greve's exuberant brush.
   "I just meant the title as a way of saying that the strokes don't represent any words or letters. There is no verbal message I'm trying to impart through them." 
   Ah, makes sense now. Cool title.
   "Do you speak more than one language?" Greve asked us. "If you do, then you know how to shut off a language, because that's what happens when you switch from one language to another. And if you know how to shut off one language, by that nature, you know how to shut off all languages. And if you shut off all languages, that is when you can do something else with those thoughts, those impulses to communicate."
No Words #28 (acrylic, gesso, graphite, 2012)

   By internally shutting off his connection to languages, shutting off his connection to the history of art, shutting off his connection to time, to sound, and to the work of his peers, Greve is able to present his spirit, purely through motion and color. And in doing so, he is showing us a long line of progression in painting, going back to Monet, a line informed by dance, art criticism, language studies, and possibly motion pictures. It's a fruit-laden road, and it stretches out in front of us now, as far as the eye can see.

 [For more information on Gerrit Greve, feel free to visit his website at: gerritgreve.com.]


  1. A disarmingly good article about this great artist.

  2. Hey thanks! It's encouraging to hear a thoughtful compliment.