A Warmer World
A Warmer World at Carl Kostyál, London England, March 1 – 31, 2019 www.kostyal.com
In Justin John Greene’s latest body of work, visions of heaven and hell are brought down to earth, in a manner that feels contemporary yet timeless. Focusing on his home of California, this new collection of paintings blends fantasy with reality, defying popular representations of the state as a modern-day utopia. While commonly associated with the promise of glamour, wealth, and sunshine, the lived experience for most Californians is much more precarious and complex. Greene explores this tension and collapses the corporeal and celestial realms to depict a new space where these elements interface.
The artist’s distinctive painting style combines aspects from social realism, German expressionism, Dadaism, religious iconography, and American animation, among a diverse range of sources. His reference points are equally vast, leaving room for the viewer to create their own connections between subject matter. In preparing a composition, Greene pulls photographs of friends, family, and his surroundings for inspiration, as well as found and popular imagery. He adds his own invented characters and landscapes, resulting in a visually rich tableau with nuanced details.
In Lost Angels (2019), Greene portrays a group of people—both real and fictional—seated among a table in a backyard gathering. A young man donning a robe, wings, backpack, and sneakers walks among the party, taking central charge of the scene. If he’s an angel and this is heaven, then it sure does feel familiar. Greene leaves this open to interpretation, creating a vision of paradise that appears convivial but curiously commonplace. Woolsey Fire (2019), by contrast, addresses a recent local tragedy, reflecting on the dystopian dimension of the Golden State. Using documentation from the 2018 wildfires as source material, the work is another record of this major event. While current news and social issues have always informed Greene’s process, such an explicit reference marks a turn in his practice.
In the aftermath of the wildfires, California Governor Jerry Brown declared that we are living in “the new abnormal”—where horrendous natural disasters spurred by climate change are increasingly prevalent. Although it is difficult to have faith in such turbulent times, we remarkably continue forward and prevail. Greene’s works display an anxious tension, with disparate figures shown in various states of action. Whether engaged in the day-to-day, a celebration, or modes of crisis, we relate with these characters and the environments in which they are placed—neither heaven or hell, but A Warmer World they must navigate.
– Paulina Samborska
Welcome to Our Mess
Welcome to Our Mess, 2017 oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches
Welcome to Our Mess, 2017 (detail)
Welcome to Our Mess, 2017 (detail)
Welcome to Our Mess, 2017 (detail)
Yard Sale Hero, 2018 oil on canvas, 50 x 42 inches
After party, 2018 oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches
After party, 2018 (detail)
After party, 2018 (detail)
Isabella, 2018 oil on canvas, 41 x 27 inches
A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure, 2018 oil on canvas, 50 x 42 inches
Gates of Eden, 2018 oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
As part of its Viewing Room programme, Simon Lee Gallery is pleased to present Welcome to Our Mess a solo exhibition by Los Angeles-based artist Justin John Greene, his first in the UK. This new suite of paintings offers a panorama of a sun-washed, tragicomic barbeque with scenes set against the background of an oddly utopic neighbourhood, in which themes of conflict and romance are paramount.
In these works, subject matter drawn from Greene’s personal surroundings – portraits of friends and family, plant-life and scenery from his life in Southern California – are juxtaposed with fictional elements that recall stylistic approaches and imagery drawn from other paintings, murals, films, and advertisements. His paintings present a collision of art-historical styles, referencing a diverse group of influences, including Baroque genre painting, social realism, Diego Rivera’s murals, Stanley Spencer’s religious paintings and R. Crumb’s satirical and scathing cartoons of American life. In these paintings, the artist brings together these numerous and seemingly disparate allusions in a series of tableaux. Greene stages the idea of the backyard barbeque as a mythical vision and reveals a tension between the imaginary and the real, the spiritual and the mundane, propaganda and truth. While his style evokes a sense of realism, his subject matter propels the viewer into another realm, at once strangely familiar and completely alien.
Beneath the surface of these seemingly utopian scenes Greene’s paintings have an undeniably dark quality and can be read as social allegories that transform the all-American idea of the “backyard barbeque” into a coded means by which to interrogate prevalent socio-political issues. While the notion of a barbeque conjures up sensibilities of freedom and pleasure, it is also typically a site of macho posturing; its cultural positioning is therefore controversial. Greene seizes on both concepts, and in his hands the barbecue scene is at once relaxed and debauched. Similarly, the term ‘backyard’ has become a metonym for anxieties regarding the quality of life – for example, the phrase “Not In My Back Yard” is a characterisation of opposition by residents to a proposed development in their local area. On the other hand, a backyard can be a meeting place, a space for games and outdoor gatherings, and a place to nurture positive neighbourly relations. However, it is only a space of supposed freedom and openness as most backyards are bordered by fences. In one small painting Greene depicts a scene of a barbeque grill that doubles up as a gate – a simple scene that exudes an air of disquiet, setting the tone for the other works in the exhibition.
A Dusk That Never Settles
A Dusk That Never Settles at Actual Size, Los Angeles, CA, June 23 – July 19, 2014
With sunset over Glendale, two fair maidens peered downward
caught foul and unaware o’ how they’d crashed so violently east
wondering if the embattled waves smashing every bit of coastal aspiration and personal dignity
could, in truth, possess the unbridled force necessary to beat and bury them in this occident
the smell of an hour lined with dirt, not evidenced by hands or lines crossed their brows
curious and desperate, they asked Orleans, “Will it never be morning?”
The white cirrus overhead taunted the heroines like an inch of snow on December fourth
—life was a cold bitch with a runny nose
movement was all around them and yet they stood implacably still
a grizzled veteran with a psyche full of foes
let his damaged and feverish rod out of its clothes
Ursula looked at him and she laughed and she cried
Violette saw nothing, said nothing, jumped onto Glendale and died
Ursula wept for a thousand and one days
and when her eyes dried and her blouse wrung out,
she exited the haze
for a blinding white light
a voice like her mother’s assured her all would be right
as the John from Arcadia plunged his prick into the night
penetrating her maidenhood like only a first love could
She thought of Lawrence, Kansas and how she wished she was from there
and all of the emotional groups she loved from there
and how she cried to their music with her short pixie fair hair
thirteen years old, bleached, stoplight on the corner of Moorpark and Victory
At that moment, life was a loss but her overall record was over five hundred and one day she saw herself living
in Verona or Florence maybe Rome or at the very least Venice
where the surf was cheap and everyone was inked up and orange and pounding all their flesh
till the drops came raining violently down to clear out the concrete pastures and make way for a peerless Silence.
–Eugene Kotlyarenko, 2014–
Raw Deal at DIANA, Los Angeles, CA, April 17 – May 8, 2015
A raw deal is an instance of unfair treatment, an injustice, the shaft. Yet, it is a phrase that walks a thin line between tragedy and self-parody. “Raw deal” is an American idiom from the turn of the twentieth century, primarily used in reference to issues with money. Since its emergence, it has appeared in popular culture, surrounding melodramatic crime narratives. Its use as the title of two Hollywood movies, the 1948 Noir classic and the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film of 1986, are prime examples. This history has imposed a kitsch status upon the phrase, raw deal. The paintings in this show explore this line between suffering and silliness. Envisioning themes of economic adversity through a lens of cartoonish noir, the works are anachronistic tableaux that draw from a long history of depicting schemers and hustlers. Dark Baroque tavern scenes, pulp novel covers, and the sultry characters of German Expressionism all show their influence. Cartoons have a pervasive presence, not only as stylistic renderings, but as references to animation’s tradition of showing characters survive imposable odds, offering a laugh at the raw deals that life inevitably serves up.
-Justin John Greene
DIANA 3048 Cazador Street, Los Angeles, CA 90065
Moonlighting at Loudhailer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, January 9 – February 20, 2016
Moonlighting refers to work taken on in addition to one’s regular employment. The scenes in Greene’s paintings depict a world preoccupied with constant, never-ending labor – often of a mysteriously sultry nature.
This series strings together visual representations of schemers and hustlers from various eras and media, referencing Baroque tavern paintings, pulp magazines, German Expressionism, early cartoons, film noir and the Harlem Renaissance. The paintings form anachronistic tableaux to underscore a perpetual labor. By nodding to and pulling from these references, Greene conveys a common statement: life is hard and people are often pushed into strange situations simply to get by.
The scenes presented —a desperate man on the phone, a gathering of cartoonish gamblers, the tired face of a woman working late— are all meant to evoke the unintended side effects of networking and freelancing, which may include sexual arousal, adrenaline rushes, nepotism, drunk texting and hangovers. Each character is caught up in a constant state of becoming, which is both exhilarating and oppressive at times.
Greene says: “I hope these paintings invite a way of openly discussing the stressful and deeply uncertain aspects of living under capitalism, especially poignant in this era of the ‘sharing economy,’ when employers utilize hordes of unpaid interns. Secondly, I hope to re-examine how the role of the artist in society has long been seen as exceptional or unconventional. Today, it seems that artists are more and more just like other types of workers, in an economy that increasingly values ideas and creativity. One could read the various dramas in my work as adding up to a sort of satirical allegory for an artist’s life, albeit one that embraces kitschy clichés of urban bohemianism.”
O Bouna Ventura!
O Bouna Ventura! at Jessica Silverman, Gallery 2, San Fransisco, CA June 2 – July 8, 2017
Justin John Greene’s new series of five oil paintings titled “O Buona Ventura!” explore the successes, risks and hazards of contemporary life. Set in the rotating cocktail lounge of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, the works depict the dizzying effect of working/playing around the clock. Each of Greene’s characters is painted in a different style, referencing German expressionism, slapstick cartoons, and Baroque tavern scenes. Their diverse aesthetics amplify the social allegory, rendering some with great individuality and others with the appearance of puppets, super heroes and villains. Much like a Caravaggio painting, the figures are often clustered around a central light source; in these works, the source is wittily absent from view.
Constructed in the mid-1970s, the Bonaventure’s architecture is an icon of postmodernism. Political geographer Edward Soja described the hotel as “fragmented and fragmenting, homogeneous and homogenizing, divertingly packed yet curiously incomprehensible, seemingly open in presenting itself to view but constantly pressing to enclose, to compartmentalize, to circumscribe, to incarcerate.” The rotating bar elicits feelings of being on an unstoppable carnival ride while its windows offer sweeping views of L.A., creating a sense of being in the spinning center of an urban universe. The architectural environment is reminiscent of the round rooms in which Francis Bacon often staged his subjects.
The exhibition title “O Buona Ventura” refers to a painting from circa 1630 by Georges de La Tour that depicts a man speaking to a fortuneteller while a pickpocket slips her hand into his coat. Although the de La Tour painting, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is usually called The Fortune Teller, the literal translation is the more ironic, Oh Good Fortune! Through his distinctive tragicomic lens, Greene breathes new life into art historical narratives and compositions in order to comment with fresh wit on the social dynamics of our times.
94 Rue du Bac
An exhibition of paintings presented by Romain Dauriac & Franklin Melendez at 94 Rue du Bac, Paris, France October 19 – 23, 2017
Life Hack at Smart Objects, Los Angeles, January 26 – March 2, 2018
Life hacks can be motivated by desperation or a deep desire for convenience. They can manifest as a set of social interactions, as altered appliances, or as tweaked channels of a system. They can serve as quick fixes to daily problems or reveal whole new ways of living.
A life hack always operates in relation to a larger power structure. But then: in hacking, do we subvert power structures, or are we just becoming better operators under their grip? Have we found ways to more efficiently oppress ourselves? Would life hacks even exist without the ubiquitous force of late capitalism?
In Justin John Greene’s paintings, the life hacks on display toy with power dynamics and point toward uneasy change. An outmoded cyborg undergoes analogue maintenance; an unknown force enters a dimensionless restaurant; an alternative energy source proves unstable.
In Expiration Date, a patriarchal scene looms. A frightened man with a passive woman clinging to his neck – sourced from an old movie poster—looks on as smoke rises from a smartphone plugged into a bunch of priapic bananas. Even if the absurd hack is working, clearly the system surrounding it isn’t.
Greene’s paintings combine elements of film noir, German expressionism, Dada, Baroque tavern scenes, and the dreamy qualities of Marc Chagall paintings, to create contemporary caricatures and curious social allegories. The scenes, rendered in his signature tragicomic approach, exude an air of anxiety and beg one to question the dynamics at play in this moment of shifting paradigms.
Actual Size Los Angeles is collaboratively run by Lee Foley, Corrie Siegel and Justin John Greene. The current Actual Size location is at 741 New High Street in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Opened in April 2010, Actual Size has hosted over thirty exhibitions/ curatorial interventions and has worked with over a hundered artists. Actual Size collaborates with established and emerging artists to encourage situations that activate the exhibition and engage the public. Projects curated by Actual Size have been profiled in the L.A Times, Art Fourm, Mousse Magazine, and Flash Art International.
For more information please visit actualsizela.com