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How do they relate? Greenwood’s Open Mouth.

Objects and Stories

By Nadine Wasserman

Kathryn Greenwood: Personal Effects

Lake George Arts Project, Courthouse Gallery, through June 12

The artist Mary Kelly broke ground in the 1970’s with her piece titled Post-Partum Document. This seminal work was a complex reinterpretation of the traditional mother-child portrait. Not only did it include notes, data, and diagrams from the first years of her son’s life, but in one section she even displayed his dirty diapers. By analyzing the minutiae of these early years of motherhood, Kelly was asserting her identity as both mother and artist.

Like Kelly, Kathryn Greenwood incorporates the trappings of motherhood into many of her paintings. In one there is a diaper; in others a binky, a bulb syringe, or a breast pump intermingle with various objects such as antique utensils, rusty tools, figurines, and toys. Just as the title of the exhibition suggests, Greenwood’s personal effects figure prominently in her art.

Greenwood explains that she often associates events in her life with particular objects. These objects enter her painting repertoire and become part of a narrative that is both personal and universal. Each item is realistically portrayed and her attention to detail elevates the object from its ordinariness and in some cases highlights its uniqueness. While Greenwood uses traditional still-life technique to render the objects, she alters the typical configuration. Rather than a classic tableau, each item is set apart from the others and appears flat against the picture plane. While this allows the viewer to look at each item individually, it also allows the objects to interact in ways that create interesting relationships. The paintings become studies in memory and nostalgia as well as in form and function. Even the cloth onto which Greenwood paints acts as an individual object with personal associations. These vintage textiles, often given to her by family or friends, serve as the ground for her paintings. The decorative aspect of each adds a further level of complexity to the overall composition, as does the fact that these are actual objects and not representations.

As individual characters in a narrative, Greenwood’s personal effects join into a conversation with one another. At times her combinations include items similar to one another, while at other times the arrangements are made up of items that are quite unalike. For Things that Pinch the similarity between the tweezers, vices, and pliers depicted is fairly straightforward. In Open Mouth, however, the items relate only visually and not functionally. Here the open mouth of a toy dinosaur mimics the open blades of a scissors, an open wrench, and a fork.

Little plastic toy animals crop up in other pieces as well. The Serpent conjures associations to the story of Eve with a little antique doll at the center surrounded by plastic toy farm animals and one rather menacing rubbery snake. But that is not the only possible reading. The piece could also be a rumination on motherhood. The doll, framed on either side by a set of silverware, becomes a symbol of sacrifice to one’s progeny.

Greenwood uses a similar humor in three small works based on recipe cards. These vintage cards, from the Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library, look as if they might have been used during her own childhood. With headings like Recipes Children Can Make and Foods that Go Places, they reveal a stereotype of domesticity. In Family Reunion Greenwood paints a pliers over the casseroles, watermelon and ham in the background. Similar to The Serpent it is suggestive of the joys and woes of familial obligation. Love, Mother is also indicative of family bonds.

Greenwood is well aware of the powerful connection people have to objects. Her own “tattered and treasured” personal effects bear the traces of memories. They were used to fix, to build, to feed, to clothe, and to entertain; and they each carry a history. By combining them into a type of pictograph she imbues them with new meaning. Sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy, the work in the exhibition becomes a portrait of Greenwood as both mother and artist.

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