Recent work by Renée Green, on view in “Excerpts” at Bortolami in New York, provides space for attention, contemplation, and simultaneous mutual engagement between the objects and the viewer through the conscientious arrangement and design of her silkscreen prints, banner installation, and paintings.
Featured in the exhibition, Green’s latest iterations of her “Space Poems” series imbue poetry by May Swenson and Laura Riding Jackson with contemporary vibrancy. By instilling in the poets’ words an energetic tactility, Green’s “Space Poems” uplift the “excerpted” language to transcend poetry’s typical emotional ephemerality. With their sans-serif font, pleasing color schemes, and bold borders, these works recall familiar characteristics of advertising. But while most advertisements are designed to be quickly digested and to cause the consumer to act with minimal, zombie-like thought, Green subverts this technique by ensuring that the message cannot be read hastily. No single vantage point allows the full text to be read at once as the messages are distributed over 31 separate silkscreen prints hung on all four walls and 28 individual banners hung in four tight rows. This exhibition thus requires the curious viewer to slowly zig-zag and spin within the room and along the perimeter to consume the full poems, in a trance-like dance, gently guided by Green’s distinct color palette and placement. The artist reminds, or perhaps teaches, the patient observer how to take one’s time when digesting poetry and art, by encouraging pause to contemplate certain words, compositions, and colors.
Green’s rendering of May Swenson’s 1965 poem “Color Without Objects” in her 2020 banner installation Space Poem #7 (Color Without Objects: Intra-Active May-Words) adeptly utilizes an intra-active structure–a term coined by feminist physicist Karen Barad which postulates that action originates from within relationships’ structures, not from cause and effect between individual entities–by hanging lines from Swenson’s poem from the ceiling in an enticing configuration of four rows. The rows are placed close enough together such that from each position, a viewer can see portions of the vividly-colored banners, but to see the full text, one must move about the room. The path one chooses to take within the room affects how the poetry is read; concurrently, the poetry’s organization impacts the viewer’s path. Unique interpretations emerge from each visitor’s engagement with the intra-active space the banners hold. Green’s understanding and employment of space and attention saturates the poems with additional depth of expression.
Ephemerality, in relation to the present moment and the cycle of life, is a central theme of both poems referenced in Green’s Space Poems #2 and #7. Green prompts enhanced attention to the shared word “impermanence.” The silkscreen prints which compose Green’s 2011/2020 Space Poem #2 (Laura’s Words) invoke Laura Riding Jackson’s 1938 poem “There is No Land Yet.” Here, impermanence refers to fluidity of thought, belief, and memory, as compared to water, while Riding Jackson reminds the reader that nothing is permanent except death. By adding unexpected line breaks, Green stimulates the readers to interpret and thus focus on the word “impermanence”: “All-wise / imper / manence.”
Similarly, the artist’s 2020 banner installation Space Poem #7 (Color Without Objects: Intra-Active May-Words) cites Swenson’s 1965 poem “Color Without Objects.” This poem meditates on transience through the varying color spots which temporarily and partially blind one’s eyes after looking at a bright light. Describing each momentary color and shape in depth, Swenson explored the full possibility of focusing on the fleeting present moment. As quoted by Green in two separate, distinctly pink-colored banners, Swenson wrote: “Such stunts of speed and metamorphosis / breed impermanent, objectless acts.” Green again cleaves the word “impermanent” to “imper / manent”. Moving about the space and reading the “Space Poems” requires the dedicated viewer to be present in each passing “excerpt” of time.
Bortolami presents not only a selection of new “Space Poems,” but also selections from Green’s earlier bodies of works. Green’s Color/No Color (1990), painted in black and white, stands in stark contrast to the chroma of her 2020 works. Everything is political–especially color. Here, Green’s text highlights a linguistic paradox: while white people have long used the term “Colored” to refer to Black people, the color black is, in fact, “the absence of all color” and white is “all the colors combined.” By illustrating this inherently contradictory language choice, Green emphasizes how the fraught narrative of race, learned and implicitly biased, has been constructed on misleading and false concepts. As is elegantly portrayed by the definitions of the colors white and black, white can only exist if every other color is included—racial justice and equity are imperative. In confronting the basic assumptions of how to even name races, Green challenges the viewers to examine their beliefs, biases, and learned misconceptions. In bold, minimal, visual language and text, Green stresses how the ways in which BIPOC have come to be understood in our racist historical progressions stem from complete misunderstanding.
In the current political climate of attention mined as a capital product, increasing inequality, and the Black Lives Matter movement gaining extraordinary and much-needed momentum, Green’s work calls on viewers to slow down to contemplate preconceived notions and unchallenged language through her masterful balance of criticality and lyricality.
Renée Green: Excerpts is on view until October 31st at Bortolami Gallery, 39 Walker Street, New York.
Kirsten Cave is an art writer and gallery assistant at Alexander Berggruen, NY. She holds an MA in Art Market Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology.