Brent Green

Kevin Killian


Brent Green, whose exhibition in Gallery 1 opened May 2, was born in West Virginia and now lives in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania.

He is a master at getting artworks to look decrepit and skanky. In Perpetual and furious refrain / MATRIX 232, a band of elongated, Gumbylike forms are captured staggering towards the viewer on exaggerated, plaster and lath legs. They’re prosperous bumpkins, as if drawn by Florine Stettheimer, not that Stettheimer had truck with any bumpkins. But Brent Green does; he is kin to these people whose aspirations and blighted dreams call forcibly to mind the current economic world crisis. Each of these sculptured folk wears a horn near his mouth like a speaker or megaphone. Above them a system of linking brass pipes snakes through the gallery, high above the audience too, like a aquifer in the sky, and I take it that this brass represents music, a primitive music, the music of steampunk and Corinthians: if have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Behind the lanky musicians-puppets a giant wax cylinder rotates in place via a fearful internal engine, rumbling around like a roll you’d buy for your latest player piano if you lived in 1910 and liked your ragtime sweet and low. But it’s a giant, fleshy roll—one the Athens-based Cypriot collector Dakis Joannou would build a whole warehouse for. Green’s is very much a music-fueled show, a project that peels back the skin off music to expose the horror that trundles the machinery.

In the MATRIX backroom, Green is showing a pair of brief films that play like trailers for an upcoming feature, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, which looks like it combines lo-fi animation with narrative footage (and premieres at the PFA Theater on June 16th).

You can see some of Brent Green’s stop-motion videos on the website of his New York dealer, Andrew Edlin. Downstairs, in the Museum Theater, Green took the floor to play live accompaniment and narration to a half dozen of his cartoons. Excitement ran high because Brendan Canty from the influential D.C. “post-punk” band Fugazi was sitting in on drums and keyboards. There was also Donna K., an instrumentalist with a table of odd items spread in front of her—blackboard erasers, a recorder, what looked like chopsticks—to provide sound effects and miscellaneous percussion. While the homemade animation proved heavily indebted to, well, Tim Burton (“It’s corpsebrideian,” whispered one critic behind me), Green’s spoken word program proved a revelation. In Paulina Hollers, Edward Goreyesque desks and tables come alive and dance a tarantella of death across the forsaken parlor floor, while a luckless woman feels her wrinkles expand until they become holes that swallow up her whole life, like that 30s poem by Auden:

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.’

It’s the “old weird America” of Bob Dylan’s basement tapes, and Green manipulates his bleat of a voice to a hemi-semi-demiquaver, like a drowning man flailing as the churned up music rises over his head. Donna K. watched the screen intently, and brought together her two blackboard erasers at particularly gruesome and tender moments of the action.

Afterwards we wondered why so many of Green’s characters lose body parts. Is a fixation on amputation only the obverse of the common fear of castration a lot of guys feel? Or is it a piece of a larger pattern of deracination and rights rescinded? And in the larger, larger picture we saw Green’s fascination with the past as yet another token—one not too far removed at core from, say, that of Luc Tuymans—of a revitalized interest in narrative in contemporary art.