Essay by Debra Kuan
Laura Greengold paints the elusive welter between waking and dreaming, a place that captures what Kafka called "a view of life in which life would both retain its ponderous rise and fall, but at the same time, be perceived as a nothingness, a dream, a hovering in the air." Here, a man operates on a prone woman's midsection, but instead of the usual stitching thread, he uses ribbons; a young woman's legs begin to grow fur; disembodied hands cut salmon for sushi. We do not know who these characters are, nor the specific narratives that are unfolding, but the tension between what we recognize in this world and what we do not constitutes the paintings' hold on our imaginations.
Like the work of Neo Rauch, the larger paintings in this exhibition use both the logic of perspective and the rules of collage to achieve their mood of uneasiness. While some objects are depicted as occupying a three-dimensional space, others appear purposefully flat and two-dimensional, like magazine cut-outs. Greengold makes these decisions intuitively, and in other places, she chooses to leave certain objects and figures completely unfinished, as mere outlines. The effect is surreal, for sure, but the dream world that results is still intimately tethered to its real counterpart. To wit, many of the works in this show reference either well-known contemporary sociopolitical conflict or historical traumas: the Middle Eastern conflict, Abu Ghraib, and the Holocaust are some that come more immediately to mind. With each of these references, however, the artist intends to be vague. For instance, in the portrait "Hiding Matthew," the young male figure who crouches, apparently naked and traumatized, in a corner, could as easily be a prisoner of Abu Ghraib as he could be one of Auschwitz. Over him, there's a splash of white and blue (semen, water?), whose nonspecificity perhaps further underscores the notion that the abuse of human power almost always takes the same form, no matter its race, nation, or historical time period.
Like Matthew, the subjects of Greengold's other paintings are equally open to our involvement. In the portraits, the gaze of the subject more often than not meets the viewer's head-on; and, in "Caucus," the viewer completes the circle around the artist, who is depicted in its center, suggesting that we are somehow complicit in the action. In "Unknown," Greengold capitalizes on the well-known Nazi gas chamber-as-shower deception by depicting an unknowing figure in the moment before he pulls the shower chain. Because he is unaware of what awaits him, the look on his face is almost gleeful, eager, hopeful; only we as viewers know better, or in this case, worse. Thus, the horror of the painting is intelligible only as much as it operates on assumptions and associations viewers bring to the experience of the painting. One could say that it is the viewer's involvement-in fact, there were no actual chains in the gas chambers-that the anxiety and violence are rendered in the work at all. Greengold asks in these paintings, then, what the responsibility of knowing entails, since we can only judge a world that is as much dream and nightmare as it is real life with limited pieces of information and knowledge. In the end, it is our intuition that guides us, and not, ironically, the brute facts that we are able to grasp.
- Debora Kuan
Debora Kuan is a poet, writer, and art critic. Most recently, her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her manuscript, XING, was the runner-up in BOA Editions' First Book Award. She is also a frequent contributor to Art in America and Artforum.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH
A: Does a Painter have to talk about what they make?
L: Well, I have mixed feeling about this, personally I think that paintings speak for themselves, whatever I say is going to be fictional in comparison to the facts of things I make. But that being said, I love hearing people talk about their ideas and inspirations, the things that drive them to want to make something. Personally I enjoy talking about my work with people to see the effects that my paintings can have on someone, what kind of dialog my work does or does not create. It is the same when I talk about someone else's work, it is the dialog that is interesting to me, I do after all lecture at MoMA.
A: When someone comes in here (your studio) what they immediately see here is representation.
A: So I see representation but I also I see representation unsettled. Not unsettling representation, which it also is, but I see that things are not realistic, not naturalistic. You have portraits and you have people but you don't have them interacting in a way that you would see in a natural setting.
L: For me using representation is a great tool. It isn't the only tool that I am interested in using, but I have always been fascinated with the power that it holds, and how little it takes to call up memories, ideas, association, etc. . . In addition to this, my work is very much affected by my dream life, and my dreams can be completely abstract in association but realistic in the way that interactions take place, environments looks or sensations/emotions are portrayed, it is a powerful ability of our brains.
A: Ok, so I have a question for you. Because I know this personally, one of your great favorites is Jackson Pollock, and I can see why, they don't exclude each other, but if that is something you are so fond of, then how come you are looking for things people recognize and then have associations with?
L: Well, it's a good question. It isn't his abstraction that I guess makes me love his work; there is a lot there. The gracefulness in his work ,is what blows me away, in particular "One"(#31) I feel like it talks so much, it is like it is at it's peak of gracefulness, and it is hovering there in space, and it is just about to collapse, but it never does. This way that I work (representationaly) is the only way I know how to try to approach that, hovering quality. It might change over time. Pollock found a way to communicate on a very basic human level that doesn't rely on representation, but I don't think that is the only solution, you have to do what is honest, and not follow the surface appearance of someone else work. It is not about the appearance it is about what someone does with it and why they do it in the first place.
A: So to me [your work] brings in conflict. It Brings in uncertainty and ambiguity in deciding/understanding violence. I don't know, it's in the air. The people are fragmented which brings about tension. It also makes me think about, not quite surrealism, but uncertain associations. So, how does the image get formed? Because, I actually think it isn't dreamlike, but they also don't look regular, so it occupies this uncertain zone of connection between the unconscious mind and reality. So, what is the process that brings these paintings together?
L: Well, I decided that this body of work would be formed out of intuition. It is a process of action and reaction that has taken place gradually over the past year. Previous to this year my work led me to a point where I was thinking a lot about memory and loss of memory on a personal and historical level. My family was involved in the Holocaust and I have been slowly experiencing the long-term effects of this event. The erasure of history/ of family and family memory. Violence has such a long tail, and for me, it is difficult to mourn those that I did not know, but I do feel the quality of erasure, past and future.
When I graduated from Yale, I received the Alice Kimble Travel Fellowship to retrace my grandmother's steps back through time, through Europe. Years later, what sticks with me is the lack of discovery, erasure of family memory, lack of a past. Though my dreams are filled with fictitious experiences about the holocaust, when I try to look to history it only feels like I am grasping at air. I think that is why I am letting intuition take over. Painting is a fantastic medium for such efforts, because it has a way of flatting time and space, and connecting unexpected potentials.
A: So in a way, this is a very dangerous process, because your not actively thinking about how somebody is going to read your work. Would potential knowledge of someone's reaction cause you to change your work?
L: Well no, because it is more important to me to explore relationships to imagery, and what recognition triggers. To me a great work of art is one that alters the way that I perceive the world.
A: I personally think to be innovative is the only way to get people to see things in a new way. Are you interested in creating a language that that doesn't exist?
L: No, I am not interested in creating a new language, but I am very interested in how to use the language that already exist. To discover how to communicate in precise ways. What is necessary for communication, how much or how little need to be said.
A: I think it's a fact that language creates our notion of reality. ------The possibilities of existing in the world ----- our relationship to things/ of things, we refer to through language.
L: But, of course there is more than one language that we all hold, and perhaps that is why I paint. I think visual language requires much less translation.
A: Well I think language nevertheless creates a very particular reality and understanding of reality. And when you grow up with multiple languages you come to realize that all these actually fashion different realities. I had to, in a way expect that each language allows me unique possibilities. Which is why I have also written several book that have multiple languages in them. Once you know how to manipulate language, then you have to use those particulars to explore all of the possibilities. I make sure that anything I write is untranslatable. That's how I verify that a text is doing what I want it to do. p> I think the great task of anyone working in any medium, is to actually become cognizant of what the particulars are in their medium.
L: and the beauty of a using a medium is that no mater how much skill and expertise you gain in manipulation, the more proficient you become, rather than solving a problem, really what happens is that the greater you become is using a language the greater are the potentialities that open up before you.
---This is an excerpt from a conversation with Amir Parsa's on 04/17/07 Amir Parsa was born in Tehran in 1968 and grew up in Iran and the U.S. while attending French international schools.He is the author of ten poetry and literary books. His work was recently included in Nouvelle Anthologie des potes francais et francophones. He is a writer in French, English, and Persian and a lecturer at MoMA.