Modernism At Play: Nathan Green at Richland College

When I chatted with artist Nathan Green at the opening of Construct, curated by Ryder Richards at Richland College, he was pretty excited about a couple of things: a bold return to Modernism’s principles that he’s seeing in a lot of work by fellow artists (about artist Aaron Curry on view in the Calder exhibit at the Nasher, jubilantly: “I mean, it’s Picasso!); and he’s over the moon about LA artist Matt Connors, whom I mentioned as a possible influence on his work. Turns out, Matt Connors (who will receive his first museum show at the Dallas Museum of Art next month) is one of Green’s idols, if he doesn’t mind me using the term. And while Green’s palette is decidedly more punkish-street that Connors’, there are those formal elements of shape and relationships in space — tenets of Modernism — that reveal Connors’ influence on Green’s work. And while Connors’ work is quiet, a bit feathery, and very enigmatic, Nathan Green’s tends to be playful, maybe even cheerful, cheeky.

His work here, which shows alongside work by MonicaVidal, Jeff Mueller, and Thor Johnson,  strikes me as a willful attempt at forgetting the proper way of doing anything grown-up, forcing himself into an art-making mode which is decidedly amateur, fueled with all his learning, in the hopes of making something fresh, unsullied by adulthood, seriousness, or any prescribed constructs. As a result, Greene’s work feels incredibly free, in a “Look, Mom — no hands” kind of way. It is a little vulnerable, a little reckless, but brave-ish. Where it’s best, the formal qualities of shape, color, size and relationship blend with a cracked kind of whimsy that can make for some strong work. 

The black and white wall painting in this show was the stand-out piece, not just because it was the most noticeable. The jungle of rolled paint strokes, in gradients of black to white in each stroke, is rich and measured while still being intuitive. A bright yellow rectangle painted atop a fraction of the black and white and pinned with green tacks at each corner plays with notions of depth and volume that the black and white underlay suggests. A thickly painted piece of egg crate foam that hovers to the lower left of the work adds a quality not unlike a swath of fabric in a still life — it breathes, or, more aptly, oozes, making the painting that much more dynamic.

Where Nathan Green’s work struggles is somewhere on that tricky line between his desire to be child-like and his head full of grown-up thoughts. A wall of small paintings here were each, individually, good studies in formalism, but the odd shapes of the paintings themselves seemed sloppy, especially when hung together on the wall, sometimes crooked. It looked like a wall of kids paintings, which I’m confident was intended by the artist, but it was an effect that didn’t move past campiness and push further into those underlying conceptual themes that Green seems to be working out — formalism mixed with levity and currency.

In a way, Nathan Green has given himself the rather daunting task of sticking to Modernism ‘s painting rubrics while attempting to untie the laces of those same rules. It’s not an impossible task. It’s often done. Richard Tuttle comes to mind, as well as Matt Connors again. But those artists succeed at rule untying, in no small part, because  their work doesn’t vacillate between rule adherence and rule bending — there is always resolution in even the most tenuous of materials. I don’t think Green is aiming far off the mark with his work; certainly, he knows what he is shooting for. When he hits it, as I think he does confidently here in the wall painting, the experience is engulfing. When he misses, you wonder not so much what he was thinking, as what he wasn’t. In other words, his work is best when it is most intuitive, and less calculatedly wonky. When he really plays, and doesn’t just think about playing, his work is delightful.