1988 CATALOGUE ESSAY by Liam Davison
‘Get the out of thy country…unto a land that I will show thee’
Unto a land
Mike Green's new epic interiors are unashamedly historical works. Building on the imagined pasts of his Small Histories series, which explore the mythologised South Seas connections of his maternal forebears, these paintings map the influence of American experience on his family and the pasts constructed from it. They operate on the frontier where intensely personal, family narratives connect with the grand public histories of nationhood and state.
Informed by letters from Green's great uncles and the romantic stories of travel and adventure told by his father, the paintings reconstruct emblematic scenes from America's heroic past to explore the relationship between personal and national identity and to animate the unknowable through the known. They are bold and dramatic paintings which incorporate his now familiar metaphoric structures of family connectedness into compositions which resonate with shared meaning. Emanuel Lentz's 'Washington Crossing the Delaware', Copley's 'Watson and the Shark,' Vanderlyn's The Murder of Jane McCrae'— these and other images of intrepid adventure and regenerative frontier violence are joined by similarly familiar representations of settled wealth and the material success of the virtuous republic.
If the original paintings reflect more the anxieties that produced them
than historical fact, so Green's reconstructions speak of forging a family identity through storytelling, fragments of fact, memory and imagination. Green's family history is one of migration and dispersal. In the 1850's, four brothers left Yorkshire for Australia. From there, his great grandfather, Joshua Cocker, travelled to the South Seas as a trader, lived an adventurous life and became the first British Vice-Consul in Tonga. One of his great-uncles travelled to Chicago where he preached for the Methodist Episcopal Church and eventually became Professor of Philosophy at Michigan University.
Another sailed to Vancouver where he was elected to the House of Assembly. He later became a bank manager in the Cariboo and was eventually murdered in Mexico.
The power of Green's paintings comes from his incorporation of these experiences, or variations of them, into his re-worked historic images. Earlier constructions of national foundation and settlement resonate against key episodes from family lore and the letter fragments carried by Green's familial structures. The high drama of 'Watson and the Shark', for example, spealcs as much of Joshua's goring by a bull and his survival of shipwreck as it does of spiritual salvation or moral redemption for the American people. John Greenwood's family portrait which underpins ‘The Loss of Four Daughters' both subverts the masculinist impulse of the epic adventure and resonates against the departure of the four Cocker sons for the New World.
The paintings are less concerned with the new land to which Green's
ancestors travelled than with the layered perceptions they brought to it. Green is all too aware that one doesn't behold a new land free of the encumbrances of the past. And, if the past itself is a foreign country, it too is viewed through layers of experience projected onto it. In this sense, the paintings are about
history as much as they are drawn from it. They operate within a grand historic tradition even as they subvert and question it.
The early American paintings reflect just how quickly the imperial impulse of the new republic manifested itself. Images and narratives from the old world were appropriated in the same manner as its art treasures.
American neo-classicism saw heroic figures borrowed from the Hellenistic tradition and manipulated to aid in the forging of a national identity. John Singer Sargent's Renaissance sensibilities aided the establishment of a new nobility. Green's new paintings work in the same tradition, continuing the dialogue between old and new and melding his personal family history with the grand visions of the past. They are also informed by populist readings of the American frontier and the colonial adventure narratives of writers like
Defoe and Ballantyne.
The paintings are powerful, dynamic works which draw their strength from the ambiguous interplay between expansiveness and interiority and between public narratives and private. They are best viewed in the light of his earlier work. Since the late seventies. Green has been exploring the shifting relationship between interior space and the exterior landscape of the
imagination. Much of the drama of his early Gypsum Palace and South
Australian paintings occurs on that littoral zone where searing light glares from outside into dim interiors. It leeches through cracks and doorways to reflect off internal windows. In later works, canvas awnings blow inwards, drawing the outside world in through a dynamic play of colour and light to diffuse the boundary between the two domains. The placement of chairs, the fall of shadows, refracted light—all work to further complicate the division.
His renowned paintings of furnished rooms and historic Hudson River homes of the American establishment are equally ambiguous. They are less concerned with documentary realism than with capturing the intensity of the present moment through which the past is focused. While the rooms may be heavily weighted with public significance. Green's investigations of light and space claim them as personal interiors—what Gaston Bachelard refers to as 'felicitous space' (The Poetics of Space, 1964). They assert the presence of a past which is in a constant state of reconstruction.
It's in the more recent 'Small Histories' paintings, where Green explores the narratives of his family's South Seas experience, that we see the important shift from actual or 'real' rooms to the fully imagined figurative spaces we see in these new works. As with the new paintings, the spaces are richly layered with images projected from history, memory and imagination. Chairs, which operate as primary symbols in the earlier work, are transfigured into totemic devices. Images of the four Cocker brothers recur in various poses. We also see the introduction of the powerful three-dimensional models which figure so significantly in the current works.
While these structures 'furnish' Green's interiors, they also operate as representations of family and affirm the interconnectedness of things. Loaded with fragments of letters and family documents they constantly realign themselves, forging new shapes and connections with each new investigation of the past. The 'Unto a Land' paintings are best seen as just that— new investigations of private and public pasts and the on-going dialogue between them.
Liam Davison is an Australian writer with an interest in landscape and history. His novels include 'Soundings', 'The White Woman' and 'The Betrayal’.