Visit 756 Chapel Street and step into the world of Dan Greene: colorful pastels, boldly drawn, presenting the mysterious activities of heroes and villains. There are archers, scribes, monks and nuns, and the fearsome knife throwers, trained by the villainous Hypnotist to thwart the lovers seeking a path to the Blue Fort that contains a mystic orchard.
Greene, currently a singer/songwriter with his group The Mountain Movers, first became known in indie music circles while a member of the group The Butterflies of Love, a band which had radio and concert success in the UK from the mid-90s to mid-2000s, even performing on air for legendary DJ John Peel. Around the time that he moved on from that band and formed The Mountain Movers with bassist Rick Omonte (aka Shaki Presents, former scheduler of the free concerts at BAR), Greene began to create drawings that, at first, were illustrations for a long poem, but that gradually took on a life of their own. At times Greene draws something and then has to decide what story goes with it, or how the image fits in with what he has already drawn.
A selection of the voluminous works Greene creates are now hanging on the walls at Intercambio, in a show called Knife Thrower. The show is the result of the efforts of Omonte and his partner Gabrielle Svenningsen, curators of the show under their name Ephemeroptera, to bring Greene’s work to the public. Each image is accompanied by lines typed by Greene to indicate what is happening in the picture.
Greene, originally from Worchester, Massachusetts, is a teacher at a private elementary school in New Haven, and describes himself as self-taught both as a musician and as an artist. In both music and art he prefers a do-it-yourself style and an aesthetic that is rough-hewn and ready made, using “cruder equipment.” The surfaces he adorns with his art are generally found on bulk trash day in the area: scrap wood, pieces of furniture, a door, old cardboard. And Greene is quick to point out infelicities, as for instance a fixative unevenly applied, or a drawing that suffered rubbings and discoloration simply because he hadn’t considered preserving or displaying it. Previously, he was happy to give drawings away to friends who admired them and made no effort to title or catalog his output. As an influence, Greene cites frequent visits to exhibits of folk and outsider art in New York; his primary development as an artist has been to become fluent with his own childlike, naïve, and unrefined style.
While certainly describing the simplicity of Greene’s line drawings, and his use of flat planes of color in a manner reminiscent of cartoon panels, such terms don’t do full justice to the odd power of the works on display. One can’t help thinking of medieval artists, not only because of the medieval characters and settings of Greene’s pastels, but also because Greene’s compositional spaces and his sense of figure derive from a medieval manner—unlike many fantasy artists who render the Medieval with the overwrought renderings of pre-Raphaelite artists. Stained glass images come to mind, in part because of the saturated colors Greene achieves.
Sometimes the borrowing is deliberate, as for instance in Handing Over The Works, one of the more complicated compositions that clearly draws upon St. Bridget of Sweden (an image of the 14th century original is stuck to the wall next to Greene’s pastel in the exhibit). Both Greene’s version and the medieval picture portray the importance of texts. In Greene’s tale, particular books create the visions that enable the First Saint to envision a new city, or monastery, a refuge for study and what we would call sustainable living. Both images show three levels of action, with communication occurring between the saints of the past and the devout of the present.
More often what is recalled by Greene’s art isn’t so much a specific image or artist from the past, but rather an access to stories that we find in storybook art for children, in comix or graphic novels, or in illuminated manuscripts: elastic space, mostly frontal presentations, details and texture achieved by overlays of color (Greene begins each composition with yellow and orange outlines, working toward the darker and heavier colors), and the aura of a coherent if otherworldly narrative. Blue Knife Thrower, for instance, might be taken at first for an alien or a spaceman or super hero until one realizes he is garbed in mail, but even so the mask-like head somehow communicates a haunting character.
And the imperfections that indicate Greene’s less than curatorial approach to his art add a sense of the haphazard and spontaneous. Almost as if the works we’re looking at are relics from the world Greene depicts. After The Kill, depicting the Nun in Black with the head of a vanquished Knife Thrower, looks rather talismanic, as if a heroic image carved into wood and kept by the people of the monastery to commemorate an important victory.
As with the best fantasy tales, Greene’s Knife Thrower implies an extensive backstory, where animals can be hypnotized to aid the Knife Throwers, where the lovers—the Nun in Black and the Skyscraper Worker—can reach the orchard or fail and die and return to try again and again, where there is a Land of Stalagmites, where the unwary may be impaled, and a Land of Pillars, and other lands that Greene’s imagination, guided by what his hand discovers in drawing, has yet to explore fully. As the story continues to evolve, so does Greene’s music. The Mountain Movers, whose three vinyl albums are on sale at the gallery, have also been evolving from “folk garage band” to something more driving and raucous. The band performed at Knife Thrower’s opening and created a loosely textured sound to accompany the beguiling textures of Greene’s fantasy art.
Knife Thrower Drawings by Dan Greene
An Ephemeroptera exhibition
Intercambio, in association with Project Storefronts 756 Chapel Street, New Haven May 12-June 15, 2012
Photographs by Kurt Heumiller