Globe-trotting New York artist Ralph Greene has been living and working in Albuquerque for more than 20 years between jaunts to China, South Korea, Europe and the Middle East.
His latest solo exhibition at the Freestyle Gallery is titled “Under the Ancient Sea: Atlantis” and includes more than 30 acrylic and mixed-media paintings through July 31.
The overall show selections are a conglomeration of works executed over several years, with an emphasis on newer work. The Atlantis theme is both mythological and geological, because Greene grew up on the Atlantic Coast and now lives near the Sandia Mountains, which are an astounding tectonic upheaval from below sea level to their current 10,600-foot stature.
Although water-oriented, Greene’s paintings include local high desert references from American Indian owl legends to Albuquerque’s local characters.
In Greene’s the “Owl Stands on a Chest of Evil” the horizontal composition is fluidly designed with curvilinear arabesques emblemizing both the spirits of the deep and the night essences with which owls are known to cavort during their midnight hunts for prey.
In ancient Hebrew mythology, the owl is the totem of Lilith, the first mate of Adam, who also was created from clay into which God breathed life. Later writings denigrated Lilith, who became, through no fault of her own, a symbol of evil.
Greene reveals his realist roots in “Charlie Tuna” a beautifully rendered swimming fish who looks back at the viewer from his watery domain. It was controversial when Ernest Blumenschein painted “Star Road and White Sun” that depicted two Taos Pueblo Indians looking straight back at viewers.
Until that double portrait, artists were loath to allow non-Europeans the privilege of directly engaging the viewer.
I wonder what those defenders of white privilege would have said about a fish’s engagement with viewers.
While still living in New York, Greene was mentored and befriended by first-generation abstract expressionist George McNeil, who offered his sensibility and aesthetic philosophy to Greene’s already burgeoning interest in abstract art.
Abstract expressionism as an approach to seeing and narrating is a large part of Greene’s theory of beauty that ranges from brush stroke to palette. Most of Greene’s paintings share a kinship with the action paintings and color field paintings lauded in the 1950s by New York critics like Clemet Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.
In 1943 surrealist and theoretician Wolfgang Paalen wrote a long essay that bridged American Indian totemic aesthetics with the growing science of quantum mechanics titled “Totem Art” that laid the groundwork for American abstraction.
Even earlier writings by Marsden Hartley supported the connection between American Indian aesthetics and modernism. In Greene’s totemic painting simply titled “Owl,” he gracefully blends the roots of abstraction in global folk traditions with the scientific patrimony of Europe.
The show includes oodles of underwater-related paintings, including “See Mermaids,” “Under the Ancient Sea,” “Atlantis” and “Big Eyes” that are all brimming with living energy. Greene’s work embodies the spatial theories set forth in Paalen’s examination of modernist thought and the new physics of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In Greene’s paintings we also find emotional and spiritual responses to the real world that transcend knee-jerk ignorance and empty political rhetoric. This array of visual experiences from the natural world is a positive affirmation of the human creative spirit at a time when cynicism passes for wisdom.