First it was slow food, the European social movement that made Ronald McDonald quit Rome’s Spanish Steps in the 1980s. Then came slow gardening, slow traveling, slow fashion, slow media, and slow parenting (Park Slope helicopter moms take note). Isn’t it high time we considered the possibility of slow art?
This is just one of the big ideas that springs to mind when exploring the tiny, perversely detailed paintings of Mark Greenwold. Other oddly compelling concepts to describe Greenwold’s disturbingly dream-like pictures include sex, shame, old age, self-portraiture, the discomfort of friends, and the nothing-left-to-lose freedom connected to figurative painting, which the artist describes as “a bad idea, a stupid idea, a failed concept.” Think Vermeer meets Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Larry David.
A 70-year old painter who has long said meh to Jay Gatsby-like success, Greenwold became infamous in the 1970s after pouring years of his life into diminutive representational pictures of sex and violence. His first Manhattan solo show consisted of just one canvas; Village Voice critic Lucy Lippard loved it so much she pegged it “the item that made me maddest last season.” Another confoundingly obsessive work from the era titled Bright Promise (for Simon) featured explicit sex, a Better Homes & Gardens boudoir, and a bedspread with 1,200 precisely rendered chenille balls. “The biggest miniature in art history,” according to the artist, it took him four long years to complete.
Greenwold’s enduring weirdness is best captured in his own words: He struggled, he says about Bright Promise, “solidly for a year on those fucking balls.” A funny feeling echoes throughout his show at downtown’s Sperone Westwater gallery, where Greenwold’s comic discomfort as a painter gooses a raft of 15 new-ish paintings and drawings, which represents the entirety of his output from 2007 to 2013. Consisting of pocket-sized renditions of people in various states of undress occupying cramped interior spaces, they feature recognizable likenesses of the artist and his often famous friends mugging gawkily, even lewdly for the viewer.
In one painting, titled The Banker’s Daughter, Greenwold’s best friend Chuck Close appears as a grinning gorgon delivered straight from R. Crumb’s shit-eating universe. In another, As a Man Grows Older, Paul Simon sports a huge, liver-spotted head; like a lump of cold schmaltz, it looks like it could slide off at any moment. Elsewhere, the painters James Siena and his wife, Katia Santibañez, pop up in several canvases in their birthday suits—every fine-grained wrinkle giving new meaning to the term “swinging couple.” In these and other paintings, Greenwold marshals painterly put-downs, compositional jabs, and psychological insults like a roast master. The overall effect is 50 percent Jeff Ross and 50 percent Kafka. Short of looking like beetles (though the artist goes there in one self-portrait), Greenwold’s characters instead undergo a cruel Gotham metamorphosis—from respected members of New York’s intelligentsia, his figures mutate into a mini-me Mermaid Parade for the menopausal set.
The opposite of Eric Fischl’s painted idylls of genteel art-world types lording it over mere mortals on St. Bart’s, Greenwold’s scenes resemble common nightmares everyone has about being naked in public. A freak show of fictional inadequacies, closet apprehensions, and ambiguous revelations, Greenwold’s world wraps itself around his figures tightly, with narcissistic abandon. The off-kilter scenes also contain disturbingly crisp detail, the result of shifting perspectives brought about largely by Greenwold’s insistence on covering up large parts of his paintings while he works. His finished canvases enact a burlesque of intimist painting that uses precursors such as William Holman Hunt and Pierre Bonnard as straight men. Their paintings, we know, once found beauty in the observation of the near and dear. In Greenwold’s case—well, let’s just say it’s kind of awkward.
Which brings us back to the idea that Greenwold’s paintings need time to unpack their self-effacing digs. No shiny balloon tchotchke or one-line conceptual bomb, his canvases instead deliver a refreshing, Campari-like bitterness. Failure that turns into something else is to be savored slowly or not at all—it is, after all, success’ dirty little secret.