“I'm trying to make something timeless—something that has relevance to people 500 years ago and 500 years into the future.”
Speaking over the phone, the emerging Bronx-based artist Jameson Green got existential about his first solo exhibition at Derek Eller Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan this February. The title of Green’s show, “Fiends’ New Moon Ballet,” highlights his artistic process and subject matter: “‘Fiend' evokes a comic book villain; ‘New Moon’ implies the beginning of a cycle [and] ‘Ballet’ indicates theatricality.” The recent CUNY graduate’s large-scale, colorful paintings tell stories with motifs inspired by Philip Guston’s cartoon nails and shoes, as well as different self portraits embedded in the narratives at various ages.
As soon as I walked into the gallery, My First Enemy and the Last, one of Green’s 2020 works, instantly reminded me of Dana Schutz’s controversial 2016 painting Open Casket, a depiction of Emmett Till in his coffin. Though Open Casket utilized similar swirling brushstrokes on his face and jacket, I found Green’s painting more impactful due to his artistic voice and identity, in contrast to Schutz’s as a white woman. By painting self-portraits at various ages surrounded by appalling atrocities committed against Black men, Green distills his own intimate perspective as a Black man in America.
To my surprise, when I asked Green about Schutz, he praised her for “risk[ing] to engage with a part of history that is all of our history.” Despite negative critiques of Open Casket when it was first exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 2017, Green believes Schutz’s painting “is ballsy in a good way” and inoffensive. Green raised a crucial point about the platform of famous contemporary artists when it comes to discussing violence against the Black community, saying that “given [Schutz’s] platform and skills, if she is going to talk about [historical Black violence], why not talk about it in painting?” Even though many critics denigrate Open Casket, stating that it wasn’t as powerful as her other pieces, it is undeniably the most violent and real—displaying the gruesome atrocities committed against Black people. Green explained it best, indicating that “Schutz is trying to understand something larger than herself. That is incredibly admirable, and I agree with that, and I agree with the intent.”
Schutz’s painting came to Green’s mind in the months after the Whitney Biennial, as he has always been fascinated and obsessed with the concept of death, as well as the natural process of living. In My First Enemy and the Last, Green tackles the theme of one’s relationship with death by depicting himself in a coffin. While many of Green’s pieces depict injustice and atrocities against Black men and women in America, Green’s self-portrait conveys how death is “always chasing you, always there, and is the reason for a lot of decisions we make in life for some lasting effect, such as children or legacy.” In Green’s case, his legacy is his artwork.
With similar themes of death, Green dives into his rough upbringing and strained childhood relationship with his father in his 2020 painting I've Tried Burying Him. The piece depicts Green’s father sinking into a brown couch lined with climbing cockroaches. Optimistically and openly, Green explained how his father was diagnosed with hepatitis and liver disease at a young age, which led to his father’s deep depression and rough relationship to Green. While painting the portrait, Green fought against his anger towards his father and learned the importance of confronting his emotions, despite trying to repress his struggles; his father sinking into the couch cushions became a metaphor for this struggle.
“You can't hide your demons and act as if they don’t exist because they will only get worse. They have to exist for you to control them. I had to confront those problems and have ownership over them.”
Today, Green talks to his father everyday and understands that he is part of his life, that he always will be, and that he is someone he truly does want in his life.
It is clear Green is not only a painter, but also a philosopher, whose research and meditation manifest themselves strongly in his paintings. Green’s philosophy on the “small arena that Black artists play in,” regarding the stigma around artists of color producing political artwork to be successful, was a highlight of our conversation. Green elaborated upon the surge of artworks that represent only “Black bodies” or Black people, rather than individuals.
“I would rather pull from my personal experiences more so than try to make a statement. You can make anything political. I'm not making an artwork to be political. I'm trying to make something timeless. Politics is so frivolous to me because it's so momentary and so in-the-now. To make something timeless, it's hard to only focus on the now. I would rather focus on the things that affect all of us and those things are rooted in politics.”
Throughout Green’s artworks, the viewer can spot which subject Green is through his stylistic use of white small “T’s” around himself. In A Young Dreamer’s Salute, from 2020, a young Green salutes two Black bodies being thrown into a river by white farmers. As with other pieces in his portfolio, Green intertwines historical violence with his own experience. The early 1800’s’ Elaine Massacre comes alive, animating a scene where Black unions in Elaine, Arkansas rose up against discriminatory farmers and were, in response, shot or thrown into the river. By turning these historical, motif-filled narratives into cartoons, the theme of a villainous cartoon from the exhibition’s title comes into play. By saluting these men, Green explains how he “acknowledge[s] that these men’s deaths are not in vain and has since allowed [him] to be here today.”
Throughout Green’s exploration of injustice, atrocities and legacy, Jameson Green immortalizes the struggles of the Black community, past and present. By exploring themes of violence and mental health, Green captures the evolution of the Black struggle in America.
“These tragedies [against Black men and women] aren’t meant to be looked at as simply ‘I wish this didn’t happen,’ because these things had to happen for us to improve. These atrocities show real value and real beauty because we [today] have a chance to do better and that's the good that comes out of it.”
Margaret Rand is a sophomore in the College studying Art History.