Born and raised in Nevada where he attended the University of Nevada-Reno, artist Michael Greenspan has also spent stretches of time in greener climates like Seattle and Chattanooga, Tenn., during his 30-year career. Yet his extended years in the High Desert West have consistently influenced his painting, and the geology, atmospherics and arid emptiness of the region remain the cornerstone of his art.
His move to Southwest Idaho late last year was an environmental homecoming, if you will. Constructs, his first solo exhibition in Boise, underscores his commitment to abstract painting rendered in a fresco technique that is at the core of his oeuvre, while revealing other crucial elements of his aesthetic.
Greenspan's 23 works at Stewart Gallery demonstrate the tug-of-war between sculptor and painter in this artist. Paintings that read as reliefs, raised, angular painted blocks imbued with an Oriental demeanor, and Joseph Cornell-like assemblages all betray a sensibility informed by his experience in the construction trade and familiarity with construction materials, and a fascination with tactile surfaces and the processes of degradation and entropy. In a variety of ways, Greenspan creates highly finished, constructed objects, even where we see pictures.
It is clear from his comments and artist statements that Greenspan intends for his work to be and to evoke many things, some of which would seem to be at odds with each other. He aims to achieve an expansiveness in his art, "snapshots of a larger scene" with its connotations of landscape extending beyond the frame, yet emphasizes that his art is essentially sculptural and object-based.
Enamored with minimalists like Richard Serra who insinuated both interior and exterior space with steel, Greenspan has worked in an abstract vein for most of his career, yet literalness is a crucial component of his art as well. He states he has always striven to represent the elements and physical forces native to his immediate environment, yet his solitary desert perspective overrode even his years in the Pacific Northwest and Tennessee. He likes to create rich patinas even though he is inspired by a dry, adobe-esque austerity. In the end, what allows Greenspan to resolve these apparent contradictions boils down to the enduring impact on his artistry of "the solace-inducing transcendence of the desert surroundings in which [he] was raised."
Despite Greenspan's sculptural persuasions, his two-dimensional work, which dominates the exhibit, has actually become more painterly. Old structures have always intrigued him, and earlier in his career, panels of solid cast plaster served as his support, imparting what he describes as a "literal architecturalism" to his art.
Today Greenspan paints on a ground of plaster veneer over wood panel on which he applies a blend of oil pigment, beeswax, enamel and pastel. In the past, his paintings were finished in encaustic but he now uses an industrial lacquer whose matte finish further flattens the surface while bringing out the nuances of his subdued colors and pentimento surface effects.
In the architecture of Greenspan's compositions, in their flat geometric planes reminiscent of aerial landscape views, and even in the solar-soaked atmospherics, there is a strong whiff of the painter Richard Diebenkorn, who was plainly an influence. In works like "Smackdab," "Planar," and "Gogo," there is a diagrammatic delineation of space that seems alternatively interior and exterior that is reminiscent of Diebenkorn's technique. Greenspan's intricate consideration of surface in some of his more monochromatic panels, like "Cool Hand" and "Seam," stir memories of the early Robert Ryman.
Greenspan also effectively weaves the use of black into his art, whether in faded arcs, plum lines and right angles, or more substantial, strategically placed forms whose dynamically redactive qualities energize smaller scale works like "Harefoot" and "West Branch." Indeed, Greenspan's alternative black medium of graphite/linseed oil emulsion featured in a series of tangential works suggests that he was bitten by the Asian aesthetic during his years in Seattle. His three-dimensional wall pieces of shaped, reinforced heavy cardboard covered with fiberglass mesh and layers of plaster are non-Western sculptural forms echoed by the black brushwork on its face, dramatically combining the arts of sculpture, calligraphy and sumi painting.
On second look, one notices how these works suggest monumental rock formations found in the desert as well (see "Anvil," a small panel painting hiding in the midst of these monolithic shapes like a key to a puzzle). Similarly, Greenspan's graphite/oil emulsions on Arches watercolor paper, of which there is one impressive example in the show, "Rod and Cone," comprise another series that emphasize the artist's Asian influences.
Greenspan's exhibit at Stewart is sympathetically installed, presented in groupings of two to five pieces that complement and reinforce each other. It is an intelligent presentation strategy that forces the viewer to focus on individual works sharing subtle nuances in palette, composition and surface effects, which otherwise run the risk of getting lost in a low-key monochromatic blur. Greenspan and Stewart Gallery director Stephanie Wilde are on the same wave length, making for a stimulating visual art experience.