Los Angeles

Tony Green


Tony Greene died of AIDS late last year, and the works in this thoughtfully installed show of more than forty paintings and two sculptural pieces date from 1987 to 1990. Greene’s distinctive palette features florid colors that give the appearance of having been darkened by time—weird hothouse tints that throb beneath multiple layers of colored varnish. Two areas in the exhibition space were painted quintessential “Greene” shades: one a brooding olive, another a gorgeous sore-throat magenta.

Greene’s paintings are square, heavy-looking plywood constructions, with moats between their central image areas and their boxy, jutting frames. Slightly raised, undulating leaves and vines loop over portions of almost every painting, suggesting wrought-iron grillwork executed in goopy toothpaste-thickened paint. Actually made with a form of plaster, the encroaching vines constitute an extraordinarily evocative and surprisingly versatile device; they seem to constrain, fence off, frame, oppress, and sometimes even protect the images they overlap. These ornate floral lattices create a visual barrier that, in some works, looks malevolent—as though it had all but choked the image underneath—while on other occasions it suggests an elaborate garden gate, a tangle that must be peered through in order to take in Greene’s layered imagery.

What one confronts through the curtain of vegetable filigree are painted photographs that fall into three categories: beefcakey male torsos usually culled from Physique Pictorial, a ’50s “weight lifting” magazine that catered largely to a repressed homosexual clientele; deserted austere landscapes; and nature scenes involving deerlike animals.

Greene’s use of horned mammals opens up all kinds of linguistic associations (“stag,” “rutting,” etc.) while evoking the smoky, dark-paneled atmosphere of a men’s club or hunting lodge. Deer tend to look innocent, and Greene uses them to create an odd pathos. Dying of Correctness, 1988, depicts two adult deer standing over and inclining their heads toward their small offspring. A tender family scene from the animal kingdom? Hardly. These animals are a taxidermist’s handiwork, photographed in a natural history museum display. It is impossible, here, to avoid considering the crushing weight of conventional notions foisted upon us with respect to what is and isn’t “natural.” Everything in this vignette is dead, including the deer and the proliferating, twisting flora that presses in on them. The idealized, slightly antique torso photos that appear in other works, with small tattoos sometimes visible on flexed limbs, seem especially truncated and stiff in this context. What we stare at in public and private; what we are shown and what we have to make special efforts to see; the ways homosexuality has been and still is veiled, entombed, or forced underground: all of these considerations seep out of these pieces. Both gothic and contemporary, feverish and utterly controlled, morose and hopeful: Greene’s work creates a knotty bramble in viewer’s minds not unlike those he produces visually. Greene demonstrated great ability in making visual metaphors that deal both directly and indirectly with the situation that AIDS places us all in, and he made his statements with power and grace. This work has much to do with beauty, fear, memorial, peeling back layered notions of the romantic, death-in-life, and life-in-death. One hopes this was not the last show of this artist’s work.

Amy Gerstler