Music as imagery; art as music.
In an age of political uncertainty, artist Madelynn Mae Green proves her belief of artists to be the boldest critics and analysts of society. Stemming from research in her Political Science BA, Green holds her power in brushstroke and line. Uniting themes of representation and documentation in her works through her interest in photography, the artist’s paintings appear hazy, shadowing nostalgic memories as well as the irreplaceability of a photograph. Green captures rhythm in her works, contemplating how paintings can become like music in their accessibility, harmony and mood provocation. Consequently, her works often come in pairs or threes, connected through colour and composition. Perhaps this is hardly surprising given that the artist herself is a twin! I visited Green’s studio in Archway to uncover why she believes that painting is the most suitable medium to capture movement and learn how she decodes emotional forces such as tenderness, nostalgia and loss, through abstract strategies.
You graduated with a BA in Political Science in the US before coming to London to pursue an MA Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. Can you explain your thought process for transitioning between these two disciplines? Does your political background come into your artworks?
I was attracted to studying Politics because it is a field that focuses on solving problems. In my BA, we read about strategies for ending poverty, inequality and violence among other social ills. Painting is something I’ve done since my early teens. In the US, you’re allowed more freedom in the modules you take, so I would take politics classes and studio art classes simultaneously. I noticed compelling connections between art and politics, especially in one of my modules called “Art and Revolution in Latin America”. In this class, we learned how murals and propaganda posters were powerful political tools that shifted public opinion and resulted in social change in Mexico. My second year of my BA (2013), I got funding to come to London to do a research project on perceptions of street art and graffiti. I surveyed residents on their views of graffiti and street art in their neighbourhoods. I found that they viewed it positively because it increased cultural capital, this is in spite of politician’s insistence since the 1970s that graffiti negatively impacts neighbourhoods. The presence of art can change perceptions of a community’s well-being and prosperity. I further carried out this project in Barcelona, Berlin and Salvador, Brazil where I geotagged street art in favelas and created a map juxtaposed with socioeconomic indicators, revealing the positive impact of public art in communities. This research carried out when I was 20-21 years old taught me how I didn’t need to be a politician to engage with politics; often art and artists-whether implicitly or explicitly-are the boldest analysts and critics of society. After graduating from my BA in 2015, I worked for the government of New York City (Department of Social Services) for one year, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped-much of politics is administration. We had ambitious ideas in the office, but our hands were often tied because of bureaucracy. During this time, I was still painting in my spare time in my bedroom… I decided to apply to the MA in Fine Art at CSM because I wanted to see what art school was like. I also felt I could use more direction in my practice and I had fallen in love with London through my research projects there. Politics does not initially seem explicit in my work; I don’t directly address subjects or write slogans. I’m interested in the politics of representation and documentation. Much of my paintings reference past archives, images and videos that would not typically appear in contemporary art contexts. I’m painting from my own perspective and confronting people to look at narratives, histories and images that have traditionally been left out of art canons.
In past works, deeply intimate images of your family life and upbringing have been pulled out of obscurity and reinterpreted through painting. Was it important to depict your own past and heritage at the time or was it more about your personal history becoming universal?
In past series where I’ve worked from my own family’s images and videos, I was not necessarily aiming to educate audiences on my specific history and background. I was initially drawn to this type of source material because of its aesthetic and because it was readily available to me. Photographs have always been important for me and my family-we obsessively document everything-so it was natural for me to view photographs and paintings as inextricably linked. The pictures in this series were taken on film cameras and developed in the late 1990s. The photographs themselves were irreplaceable objects; they were not digitised and unique. They were essentially historical artefacts and had been literally handed down from family, I wanted to bring these unseen images out of obscurity. I think the aesthetic and appearance of the photographs informed my painting style. The overexposed, blurred, dog-eared pictures appeared “old” in a way that photos in 2019 do not. The family photos evoked for me the same feeling of nostalgia that a childhood stuffed toy could. Through making these paintings, I’ve thought a lot about how society’s relationship with the photograph is changing. We take them casually on our phones and rarely print them out… I think about how paintings seem to have taken over the documenting function of personal photographs. Photographs are no longer three- dimensional objects; we only really encounter them on screens. Paintings on the other hand have to be experienced in person. I think the shift from personal source material to public sources signifies a shift in my relationship to painting. I previously viewed painting as a deeply personal act-I was never accustomed to painting for audiences-but now I think about the power of painting as a communication tool and the capability of a painting to have its own life and meaningfully engage with society. Ultimately, I want to assert a more expansive vision for my practice and work with a wide range of source material.
We spoke a lot about your dad and grandma’s DJ’ing background and being brought up in an atmosphere surrounded by music cassettes and vinyl’s. Was encountering music albums your first introduction to what art could be?
I think it’s interesting how much music relies on imagery. Music videos, album covers/art and posters have a symbiotic relationship with songs. On the other hand, painting is a bit isolated. I think painting should engage more with other art forms. During your visit we discussed how I could possibly add a sound component to a future painting display, which sounded like a great idea. I remember a lot of CD’s being in family members’ houses and admiring the CD cover artwork. It was interesting for me to see how an album of songs could be summarised through one definitive cover image. Musicians work very hard to create imagery for their sound and these images become iconic symbols. I think music is the most powerful art form because of its accessibility. Sometimes I think “how can I make a painting as good as this song? how can the visual be on par with the sonic?” I think my paintings aspire towards the moods and forces that are so clearly expressed in music. A painting should be able to spark joy, nostalgia, sadness, etc. the same way a song, book or movie can. This is difficult when so much of contemporary art is shrouded in elitism and classism. I hope for painting to become as much a part of popular culture as these mediums are.
Your current work focuses on nightlife scenes sourced from real video footage of house and dance music raves from the eighties and nineties. Are you interested in exploring intangible ideas with this series, such as the mood or the energy of this particular music? What other emotional forces are you trying to capture?
When doing research for my course, I encountered Gilles Deleuze’s writings on Francis Bacon’s paintings. He specifically argued that Bacon’s work contained emotional “forces” and that is what made them successful. According to this theory, a painting is “good” when it convincingly captures intangible forces such as time, fear, movement or gravity. Rhythm is a force I hope to engender in my work. I first became interested in this when reading the same Deleuze text, where he also discussed triptychs and how they are only successful when a rhythm is established between the 3 canvases (the composition, colours and figures all contribute to the rhythm). That idea helped inform my degree show installation “Detroit, 1989” and inspired me to display the paintings in a harmonious fashion as opposed to an unbalanced salon-style installation. I consciously tried to capture forces through using only canvas and paint. I let the source material guide me in what I want to communicate. For example, the party I referenced was full of stylish, confident, young people. I was considering how can I transfer this same sense of “cool” using just raw materials. I built the paintings up slowly, working layer-by-layer on them all simultaneously. By keeping the same pace with all the paintings, they reached maturity at the same time. Using the same palette on all the paintings helped them remain linked. This was important for me because all the scenes depicted in the paintings took place on the same night. In addition to the rhythmic installation, each painting evokes a different mood, or rhythm. This is intentional and shows the wide range of activity that takes place at a party. You see people in deeply personal moments of dance and introspection as well as couples lovingly gazing at one another. By painting crowds, I am contextualising figures amongst one another and exposing the relationships between them, which can change based on the viewer’s experiences and perspectives.
Some of these characters appear hopeful, eager and liberated in contrast to expressions of confusion and misplacement. Do you think that nightlife or underground spaces can be seen as a refuge from reality, especially for marginalized people?
Yes-I think that nightlife and spaces are liberating for many. They are spaces of spirituality and renewal. I grew up going to churches and attending religious schools. As an adult, I notice now that the same senses of spirituality, ecstasy, introspection and joy are as present in a nightclub as in a church. House music elicits similar spiritual responses as gospel music. It also often carries the same inspirational messages. There’s a sense of redemption, sanctification and “saving” that occurs in a club as much as a church, that is perhaps why churches are so important to marginalised communities, many of whom place church at their centre. Nightlife and clubs similarly act as havens from unsavoury realities.
On small-scaled works, there seems to be a focus on representing youthful and diverse crowds, but one large-scale work within this series concentrates on solely one form. Is it the first time you depict an individual figure since your 2016 self-portrait? Does this character take on personal stories through her ambiguity?
Yes, ‘Final Frontier’ was my first time painting a lone figure since 2016. It was a challenge, because I love painting narratives and creating relationships between figures on the canvas. Yet there was something about the woman in the source material I used-a video of a party in Detroit in 1989-that inspired me. Her sense of self was strong and I wanted her to take up space both on the canvas and in the degree show as a whole. The mysterious nature of her identity and surroundings means the painting can have a range of interpretations; viewers can project whatever narrative they wish onto her. However, her gaze is so strong that she asserts her own identity and story, despite the ambiguity. I discovered that I really enjoyed painting lone figures and will likely do it more often. The connection between the figure and the viewer can be intense. Even though there are less figures, having a single character on the canvas seems to make audiences spend more time looking at a painting. I think people are trying to connect with the figure and decode the narrative. This requires more effort than in crowd paintings where a narrative is more obvious.
There is a pace to both music and painting, and in the process of painting, you appear to move between works quickly, mimicking a beat. How do you encapsulate ideas of rhythm, not only in your work but also in your process?
When making the work, I considered the concept of rhythm, as it appears in both dance and in painting1. I tried to create a sense of cohesion and harmony between the works through colour and the arrangement of the paintings on a wall. Rhythm itself relies on multiple parts coming together coherently, so establishing a rhythm-whether that be through colour, composition, scale, thematic content-helps unify a body of work. Paintings have rhythm innately and in how they relate to one another. Rhythm requires feeling-you can’t really be taught how to dance, for example, you just have to feel the music. This innate cohesion and harmony can also be achieved in painting-I think strong intuition yields successful paintings. I have a theory that great dancers and musicians would also be great painters (and vice versa).
1 Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation
Looking closely at your characters, these appear to have very faint, almost ghostly, blurry halos. Does this distortion allude to a fading memory?
This distortion is a stylistic device, I do it to create a sense of ethereality and to move away from hyperreal depiction. The old photos and videos I reference also have this faint halo around people’s heads. By including that in the painting, I’m showing the connection between painting and photography, both emphasising the paint and the constructed-ness of the painting.
The grounding of your paintings is united by the same pink and purple hue, linking to ideas of harmony. Are you interested in an interconnectedness between your work?
Central to my work is the use of colour. I have always been fascinated by colour theory, specifically the idea that the eye can perceive a colour without you being aware of it. I often consider complementary and analogue colours when applying ground or mixing paint. I have a lot of colour tricks I used when I’m painting; I tend to always put purple hues in my skin tones and I rarely use pure black-I always mix it with another colour. I think it’s important to conceive of your work as bodies or groups. I have always worked on multiple pieces at once, alternating between the canvasses to unify the palettes and style. I like the idea of paintings having relationships with one another. I consider some of my paintings’ “twins”, not necessarily diptychs, but connected by similar themes and styles. As a twin myself, I often conceive of things in groups and don’t think of myself as an individual. This philosophy appears in my practice.
Abstract strategies such as the use of imagined scenes are recently integrating into the canvas. Are you pushing your work to become more gestural and are you interested in creating more ethereal settings?
Yes, in my next series I want to experiment with detaching a bit from painting defined figures. I think this ethereal style will help me further communicate nostalgia in my work and allow different narratives to be created from the source material.
The past is often seen as rose-tinted, and through your recent application of wallpaper on canvas, it seems that you have added a layer to the past, mimicking current app filters that create nostalgic effects. Are you interested in the interweaving of the past and present through analogue methods and will you continue to push this material further?
I think I use colour and layering to “filter” my own paintings”. I’m interested in obscuring and making the viewer work to try to understand what is going on. Blurring and highlighting certain areas and figures is also a way to create a narrative solely through the materials. This narrative building strategy interweaves the past and present, I’m able to transform the source material and bring the past to a contemporary context.
Do you have any plans to take your work to America? Or is the UK where you see yourself basing your practice for the foreseeable future?
I’ll continue living in London until at least Fall 2020, ideally after this I would move back home to America and set up my studio closer to family and friends.
Words by Vanessa Murrell