Watkins Mind Body Spirit Issue 55
The Wonder Valley Paintings of David C. Greene
I first discovered David C. Greene’s paintings by chance in 2011. He was presenting his first ever show of ‘Mojave Noir’ paintings at a tiny little gallery in a converted chicken shed, about 10 miles east of 29 Palms in California, called ‘The Glass Outhouse’.
It was the first time I had come across an artist who was painting the desert landscapes at night as opposed to during the day.
Similar to the very personal anecdotal work of Edward Hopper, David’s paintings, by capturing moments from his own everyday encounters, gave me direct insights into his own unique life story and also inspired a feeling of being transported right into the heart of the Mojave Desert.
There was something both esoteric and exoteric, something deeply authentic and sacred contained within his work that has been captured by few other ‘desert artists’, (Georgia O’Keefe and some of Noble Richardson’s desertscapes spring to mind). It wasn’t lost on me that his work seemed to embody and reflect one of my favourite lines from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: “Have you ever gazed up into the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the absolute stillness and inconceivable vastness of it?”
Within the last few years I have kept experiencing moments of synchronicity around David Greene and his paintings. For example, one evening, as I turned the corner into the fabled 29 Palms Art Gallery, I saw in the same moment, both the full moon outside the window of the gallery and a full moon painting by David Greene on the wall of the gallery!
I asked David to shed some light on his life and work:
When did you make your first night-time painting? What was your first ‘Mojave Noir’ painting?
My first night painting was done circa 1995. A miniature (1” x 5/8”) of two figures standing by a small “spirit” fire. I’ve forgotten the exact title, but I did it the evening I learned my Mother had been hospitalized due to a stroke. I wasn’t able to go see her at the time and I thought of it as a conduit for sending her comfort.
My first Mojave Noir was “Sparky Observes the New Moon in Lupis”. In 2010 my wife Lorelei organized a group exhibition titled “Raised By Stars, Not Wolves”. I created that painting and four other nocturnes for the show. That was the start of the series for me.
What was the inspiration behind the Mojave Noir series?
In 1998 I saw an exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art. On display were two works that struck me in particular. One was a winter scene by George Bellows, of fields of snow with buildings and trees (“Blue Snow”). The other canvas was a nocturne, possibly by Childe Hassam, of people strolling through a gas-lamp lit park. The two works shared particular design elements: stark, high-contrast palettes and simple scenes of broad scope with a few highlighted features. These images stuck with me, teasing me in a way. I wanted to do paintings that evoked the feeling I got from those two, but was unsure how to approach it.
Upon moving to Wonder Valley, one of the first things I discovered was the haunting beauty of the moon-lit desert. The stark landscape and subtle lighting seemed a perfect mix of all the things to include in a nocturne. Most of the scenes depicted in the series are ones I see almost nightly as I walk our dog Sparky around the property.
How has living in the desert impacted your art?
Up till 2003 I lived in Ohio and spent five years or so doing true-sized paintings of insects, à la James Audubon. I was accustomed to foraging in rural woodlands and the wild interstices of urban environments. My paintings were intimate vignettes of found natural objects. My focus was on the small, everyday flora and fauna that humans have largely removed themselves from. It was also an inadvertent recording of natural history. Insects I could find in local abundance one year were wiped out the next by human development.By contrast, Wonder Valley is a loose-knit wilderness community. Our nearest occupying neighbor is a quarter of a mile away.
The predominant plant life are scattered creosote bushes. We have an unobstructed view of the mountains that surround the basin, clear skies 95% of the time and very little light pollution. A lot of my previous artistic touchstones were no longer a daily influence. All the distractions of city life were no longer an easy temptation. My artwork has always served as a personal diary as I journey through this world. Drastic changes in my life brought drastic changes to the work I produced.
Once here, economics dictated I start painting on larger scraps of desert-aged plywood I found on our property using recycled house paints. Because of the rough surface, my style loosened back up and I started to rediscover my interest in abstract expressionism, using it in the backgrounds and shading of a more academically rendered subject.
You seem to have a special personal affinity to the stars. How have they affected your life and your life experience?
I’ve always had a fascination with “Outer Space” caused by a potent brew of the 60s American space program, cheesy sci-fi movies on TV and science fiction in general. In the mid 90s I developed an intense interest in astronomy as part of research for a painting I was working on.
Moving to the Mojave enabled me to see the night sky in its full, unobstructed glory every night. I came to think of myself as being on the surface of a spaceship as it travels through the universe. I found that by leaning back in justthe right fashion my field of view is nothingbut thick, bright stars. It’s like being put into Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex whereI get to see “... in one instant the whole infinityof creation and (my)self in relation to it.”
Viewing the universe on parade every night from an environ that NASA uses to test prototypes for missions to Mars makes it hard to take myself or the modern world too seriously. When I think about the sheer scale, age and entanglement of the universe, I’m humbled by how little we truly know. On so many levels we are still banging rocks together.
You’ve spoken to me of your fellow artist Jim Beoddy. How has he influenced your work?
Shit... how many pages does this issue run? Better call for more paper... better yet, I’ll start by quoting his Artist’s Statement:“In general, my work is a statement about the Self, and a portrait of reality as I am forced to see it. Most of my work was conceived in the necessity of Obsession and created in the face of Adversity, almost as if to prove that Art can thrive under any circumstances at all.I believe that Art is the will, the soul, and the heart of Humanity asserting itself. Art is the eternal screaming of a voice that has never had any other kind of mouth. Art is the desperate attempt to lovea life that isn’t even worth living. Why? Because this is the only life we have, and it needs a lot of love.The artist is much of the sensory and emotional apparatus, and, more importantly, the imagination, of Humanity Incarnate. A society without a culture, without free and expressive artists, is like a human being without a subconscious. Perhaps such a society can function, perhaps it can live; but it cannot dream - and bereft of this ability, like a person, cannot help going mad. Thus the artist must exist as psychotherapist to the Body Politic.”- James A. Beoddy
Jim was my mentor in the Columbus alternative arts scene of the 90s. For twenty-two years he was my best friend, shaman, father figure, co-conspirator, brother-in-arms, neighbor, tenant, confessor, and faithful correspondent. We shared many common interests and influences, especially that potent brew I spoke of earlier. Jim was the most devoted, tenacious, and singularly prolific artist I’ve ever met. His “Art in the face of Adversity” ethos was our shared Shining Path from the day I first met him in his performance aspect, “Goblinhood”. The eternal struggle in obscurity in defiance of the obscurity. Art as one of the few actions we can take in any circumstance. As he lay on his death bed, he made a little drawing as a gift of comfort to the friends that were with him the night of his passing. That’s some pretty stout stuff.
What other artists’ work has influenced the Mojave Noirs?
One that I was reminded of recently is Nicole Claveloux. I haven’t seen any of her work in the last 30 years, but it made a lasting impression when first I saw it in Heavy Metal magazine. I immediately fell in love with her surreal, truncated reality and palette.
For the last twenty years I’ve avoided studying others’ work as I don’t want it creeping in on my style. I’m self-taught and my personal solutions to technical problems make my work more idiosyncratic.
In the spirit of N. Senada’s “Theory of Obscurity,” the less I concern myself with the whims of the market, the more isolated I am from external influence, the purer my artistic vision will be. Creative people are like stray cats and dogs living, in thought or deed, on the fringes of society. After eleven years living on the far outskirts of civilization, I’ve become almost feral.
Do you hold any spiritual beliefs or practices? Do they influence your practice of making art in any way?
It’s an amalgam of the world’s philosophies filtered through The Tao of Pooh and Zap Comix. I keep a set of Man, Myth & Magic bedside and browse through random volumes before sleep. I avoid all media for the first hour of my day. By spending most of my day in silence, I allow myself time and space to be empty (aka “bored”), knowing that inspiration will fill the void.
I don’t overthink things in general, or often do preparatory studies, it’s more a Buddhist approach. Prolonged observation, maybe a plein air drawing for especially interesting or fleeting sights, followed by direct work in the studio, revising as I go. It’s how I approached art as a child. The finished work doesn’t have to be exactly as conceived. Often it tells me where it wants to go and when it’s time to stop. Water doesn’t have to think about which way to flow,it follows the most natural path.
You’ve spoken of ‘mapping’ the local terrain with your paintings. Why do you want todo this?
For the same reason parents take images of their children. The two cabins I’ve documented most have since collapsed and scavengers are harvesting the usable scraps. Wonder Valley is changing at an exponential rate these last few years. People are buying the last of the homestead cabins and converting them to rentals. More lights are coming on at night. I’m inadvertently recording the natural historyof my environ, this time on a macro level.
You’re a member of the ‘Awakened Artists’ group, whose role is to give people access to a deeper dimension of experience. Is there anything you’d like to say about the ‘transportive’ element of the Mojave Noirs?
No matter my intent when creating a work, the viewer always brings their own story first. Sometimes it’s better than the one I had thought of. I let my work set the stage for the viewer’s imagination to do the transporting. Given the spontaneous nature of my approach, I’m transported as I work. I give the viewer (myself included) hints and allegations. It’s what shadows in the night do best.
MEET THE ARTISTS:
DAVID C. GREENE is a self-taught artist, originally from Ohio. Since moving to Twentynine Palms, his work has appeared in various group and solo shows. He lives with his wife and dog in a wilderness community in the middle of the desert. His paintings are inspired by what he sees every night when he takes the dog out for a walk. On the web: dcgart.weebly.com
ALEXANDER DE CADENET is an artist working primarily with sculpture, photography and painting. His artworks explore philosophical and spiritual themes which often combine a mischievous, humorous tone with deeper, more profound insights. In 2017, he set up The Awakened Artists Group, inspired by a meeting with Eckhart Tolle, which is a platform for artists to share the spiritual dimension of their art practice. On the web: awakenedartists.com ; alexanderdecadenet.com