Brent Green (b. 1978) works in the tradition of artist as mythmaker, as teller of tall tales. If Mark Twain were with us today, he would probably be engaged in endeavors comparable to Green’s films—works that focus on characters tragically consumed by their obsessions, due to their woefully imperfect understanding of themselves and the ways of the world.
I interviewed Green in mid-September in Cleveland, Ohio. We first met two years earlier, when he had an exhibition of objects and drawings at the city’s Sculpture Center. This time, Green was driving a 16-foot-long truck from Berkeley (where he had just deinstalled his show for the Matrix exhibition program at the Berkeley Art Museum) to Ithaca, N.Y. (for a performance at Cornell Cinema). He stopped in Ohio to attend the screening of his most recent film, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then (2010), at the Cleveland Cinematheque. This feature-length, stop-action film uses live actors to spin a fantasy based on the true story of Leonard Wood and the idiosyncratic house he built in Louisville, Ky.
Green, as voiceover narrator, informs us that Wood began building one bizarre addition after another onto his house when his wife, Mary, was diagnosed with cancer. His hope was that this “healing machine,” the fruit of his labor and faith, might somehow save her life. After Mary’s death, Wood—to distract himself from his loss and sorrow—continued to work on the house for the next 15 years. Green visited the house following Wood’s own death, just before a neighbor, who found the structure unsightly, bought it and tore it down. The artist built the version we see in the film as well as four neighboring clapboard houses at his studio in rural Pennsylvania. His reconstruction of the Wood house, having been made to travel, now serves as an installation piece, usually accompanied by the film.
Many of Green’s eccentrics attempt—through their often maudlin pursuits—to transcend the mundane and transform the world into a place of wonders. Yet most of them are the kind of people who would ordinarily go unnoticed. In conversation, Green portrays himself as being akin to the protagonists in his stories, driven people living inconspicuously in a realm where the motto is live and let live. He not only shares the all-consuming passion of his dramatis personae but also implies that his own artistic impulse is analogous to their despair-driven creativeness.
Susa’s Red Ears (2002), Green’s first film, is a 6-minute animation about a hyper-imaginative young girl who magically inserts a red toy fire engine in her brain. Hadacol Christmas (approx. 11 minutes, 2005), also an animation, features a skinny Santa who invents Christmas after drinking the whiskey-laced cough syrup Hadacol. Carlin (7½ minutes, 2007), using jointed totemic figures and other props, recounts the slow demise of Green’s Aunt Carlin, who died from diabetes in his family home at age 35. In Paulina Hollers (12½ minutes, 2007), which mixes wooden figures and cartooning, a deeply religious mother kills herself in order to try to retrieve her dead son from hell. Weird Carolers (approx. 4 minutes, 2009) employs jointed figures and crude drawings to detail the torturous process by which a deaf Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony. All the films are shot in stop-action, with deliberately bad lighting, wry hand-lettered placards (“This is my new film / I hope you like it”), alternative-music soundtracks (except Weird, which ends with the “Ode to Joy” blasting) and the artist’s sometimes plaintive, sometimes railing voiceover.
Green is high school educated, and lives and works in a barn in Cressona, Penn., a town of 1,600, where he grew up. As an aspiring writer-musician in his early 20s, he taught himself how to draw cartoons so that he could animate the images in his stories and songs. Green writes short stories, a couple of pages long, which become the basis for his films, sculptures/props and installations. His esthetic tends toward the naive folk-gothic, in keeping with his characters and their plights. Direct and pragmatic in method, he simply moves images and objects frame by frame to low-tech effect—a method that disguises the artist’s inventiveness and dramatic sophistication.
Though Green is best known for his films and performances (he at times screens his works with live narration and musical accompaniment written and played by himself and members of Califone, Fugazi and other indie-rock groups), he has become increasingly ambitious in creating installations that incorporate his props and sets. He has also begun to produce handmade kinetic sculptures and a series of smaller devices crafted from sewing treadles and accordions, which when cranked or extended produce animated images. His recent Berkeley show, “Perpetual and Furious Refrain,” centered on a gigantic version of an Edison wax cylinder used for recording sound.
Other 2010 solo exhibitions were held at Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York; Arizona State University Art Museum, Phoenix; and DiverseWorks, Houston. Green’s films have been screened at the Sundance Film Festival; the SITE Santa Fe Biennial; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Wexner Center, Columbus; the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
SAUL OSTROW You had an unusual start in the art world, didn’t you?
BRENT GREEN I just got lucky. I received a Creative Capital grant in 2005 as a filmmaker. But after I showed my work in upstate New York at the Creative Capital retreat, I walked off the stage and only visual art people were standing there, saying, “Well, you need to show your work at the Getty, at the Walker, and here’s a gallery.” So the art world just kind of embraced me.
SO And you had no relevant experience—because you didn’t go to art school. So the idea of being an artist was . . .
BG Foreign to me. It didn’t occur to me that it was a job one could have.
SO How did you respond?
BG Honestly, at first it was disappointing. Wow, I thought, all these film people don’t care about what I do. Which wasn’t entirely true. I’d been in Filmmaker magazine during Sundance that year. Then I decided, well, why try to kick down doors when others are opening for you? It was exciting because previously I hadn’t followed art at all. So all of a sudden I was in a new realm. And I had the New York gallery Bellwether representing me. I figured I should walk around Chelsea and learn about this stuff. It was really kind of thrilling, because I was just a guy from backwoods Pennsylvania.
SO But you had to have made something to get the grant. Creative Capital doesn’t give money to people with no track record.
BG I’d made three short films, animations, and I got the grant. I applied for the grant because I had gotten fired from my job as a waiter at Red Lobster. I was 25, I hadn’t gone to college, and I only qualified for a couple grants. I got them both—one from Creative Capital, one from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. I didn’t know it was a big deal. I applied because a friend said I should. I didn’t really think of myself as a filmmaker. I thought of myself as unemployed.