New York

Robert Greene

Robert Miller Gallery

Too many critics have put Robert Greene and his work on a boat bound for Cythera or Arcadia, someplace fantastic, because his paintings seem to embody more than anything else the dreaminess of dreamlands. But while they frequently have an element of anything-is-possible magic, what makes them interesting is their openness to the fleeting moments that make up life: the dazzle of some cute unknown mowing the lawn with his shirt off as you pedal by on your bike, or the superlative beachiness of the late spring evening light, or a dog’s irresistibly pleasing adoration of its master.

The standard poodles for which Mandel, Martin & Marsden, 1998, is entitled climb on a steep rocky slope in a green wood. Greene’s canvases are often populated by frisky canines, and his relationship to the medium reflects the give-and-take of master and dog. Rambunctious then calm, surprising, allowed to have a mind and life of their own, the paint and brushwork are always controlled, until they’re almost not—I think the word is tachiste, if that has something to do with touching. To the casual chic and exactitude of Alex Katz’s radiant portraits, made miniature among vast expanses, Greene adds the eccentric candy-hued mastery of Florine Stettheimer. Whatever plage tactics he has picked up from Puvis de Chavannes, looking at his work lets you know that it’s fine to note the influence just because it’s fun to say (about anything) that it has a groovy dose of Puvis-ness.

In Hold On, 1997, two men, one in orange-striped bathing trunks, the other in mint green, play an acrobatic game, one balancing on the thighs of his crouching friend. Dogs (collie, poodle) chase waves, a girl in a sky-blue bandeau swimsuit does a backbend, a woman does a handstand, while others catch shore winds with sheets, the surf rolls in, and the beach houses slide off their foundations. It would be both a mistake to read the actions allegorically—to see the balancing act as something to do with love or even painting, the house’s precariousness as the fragility of any home—and somehow stupid not to. Greene employs everything available (the fantastic, the real; joy, loss; the history of painting, the klieg glamour of film; the actual and the allegorical; illustration and abstraction) to keep his paintings breathing and alive. His new nonrepresentational works, like Dazzle, 1997, and Alive, 1998, refer to underwater seascapes with bubbles, pieces of nacreous seashell, and anemone swirls. (Dazzle also includes tiny dog portraits in its blues, pinks, and foam greens, linking it to the handsome guy appearing in a riot of flowers blooming in Treasure, 1996.)

For all the many pleasures of Greene’s tableaux, there pulls an undercurrent of the perverse, encroaching darkness, loss. Clouds blocking the usual sunniness doesn’t get at the strangeness of this work, its subtle but ferocious independence—how the exuberance and vivid hues defy the made-up rules for what passes as contemporary. The man who mows the lawn below the overwhelming flowering tree of Another Bloom, 1996, is alone with his dogs, drawn inward; the couple approaching one another in Together, 1997, can never unite, only approach. Perhaps the most thrilling painting, Plunge, 1998, puts Greene’s paradox most clearly, as a young man and his dog free-fall to the water from the bridge they’ve just jumped off. Is this a summer lark or the end of everything for them? Greene plunges into such unknowns at every turn.

Bruce Hainley