Greene’s tour was extended beyond its 4-year span and he found himself in Da Nang as a member of the first US fighter squadron to enter Viet Nam. The assignment lasted less than a year and returned him home physically intact. “Yes it had impact on my imagery” is all he’ll say about the experience.
In Washington DC after his discharge, Greene attended his first drawing classes at a Georgetown University summer art program, and knew immediately, at 25, that he’d found his métier. Coincidentally, in Washington he also met and married Louise Lear (mother of his 3 sons). The couple returned to Brooklyn, where the artist resumed his interrupted education, finishing high school and earning both his BFA and his MFA at Pratt Institute by 1972.
Ralph Beery Greene, more or less abandoned the mainstream at 18, has never really looked back and remains an iconoclast to this day.
A Brooklyn born-and-raised eldest son of enterprising and conservative parents - with family ties in rural Pennsylvania and Washington DC - the impetuous Irish kid started adulthood not as an artist, but as a soldier - after skipping a high school class one day to enlist in the Marines.
He survived basic training at Camp LeJeune and Parris Island in the Carolinas, and soon shipped out for Havana Harbor on a mission to “avert nuclear war after the Bay of Pigs disaster.” En route, the fleet bearing the then-naïve ensign made a U-turn -- and Greene eventually found himself stationed near Osaka, Japan.
There he remained for the better part of four years, and that’s where his career as an artist really started when he first peered through the lens of a Nikon-F picked up at a Navy PX. Hundreds of pictures of people and places emerged, notable primarily for their visually “unfocused” subjects -- often people in disarray. That view of the world begun in Osaka persists to this day in a style still affected by the art, the vistas, the culture and the philosophy of the East.
Pratt radically changed and influenced Greene’s life as an artist. He shifted focus from photography to the more visceral mediums of oil on canvas and thick pastiches of pastel on paper or board. From the outset, he was drawn to the charged imagery of the Expressionists and soon came under the tutelage of Pratt’s George McNeil - himself a noted student of Hans Hoffman. The influences of both artists can still be seen in Greene’s work in 2010.
“Leave your brain at the door of the studio” decreed McNeil. Greene complied after determining Mr. McNeill meant by the edict not to “draw dumb” but rather to embrace spontaneity and avoid “too much planning” of the picture. Usually retaining a figurative element in his work, he eventually mastered merger of the elements of abstraction, deconstruction and personal expression to develop a singular and largely non-derivative style. McNeil became both mentor and inspiration, later characterizing his young protégé as already “an accomplished artist with intrinsic merit as a painter.” Put another way: a natural.
At Pratt, Greene accepted an opportunity to serve as McNeil’s teaching assistant, a decision that led to years on the art faculties of Pratt and Queen’s College, and later at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, NM. Unlike many professional artists, however, teaching, mentoring and promoting the work of emerging artists has always energized Mr. Greene. ”Sure, it takes time away from the studio,” he admits, “but I’ve always loved teaching, and I’ve even opened galleries to promote the work of young artists with real promise.”
His teaching and studio careers continued in parallel for years – in New York until 1987, and in New Mexico after 1990. For several years, Greene migrated back and forth between New York and New Mexico, but now makes his permanent home in Albuquerque.
In his own view, he’s finally “come of age” In the years since 1990. His imagery has fluctuated periodically with changes in surroundings, light and personal experience, but he’s maintained diversity of style and has never adopted a permanent look due to its popularity. He’s visibly disdainful of those who do, but admits he’s “probably never stuck with a particular theme long enough for it to catch on.”
Always grounded in expressionism, with just occasional forays into classical and conceptual genres, Greene’s dense, painterly oils and pastels are immediately recognizable as emanating from this artist. He eschews acrylic, caring not a whit for the property of fast drying; he draws quickly but fills and sculpts slowly, often working on multiple pieces simultaneously and returning to finally dried start-ups weeks after their commencement. Only then do ultimate images evolve from the negative space in which they reside – what Green calls the “cosmic dust” – to complete the story and convey the deeply personal experience of almost every work he creates. An aesthete since his days watching watercolorists in Japan, he awaits a “signal” before commencing any piece, often alluding to the “first leaf on a cottonwood to flutter in new wind” to describe the experience.
Off and running though, Greene often transcends pure abstraction by incorporating figures, terrain, objects and enclosures – some obscure, some prominent – into his compositions. Influenced by McNeil, Bacon, Bonnard, Gorky, DeKooning, even Diebenkorn, Greene’s melding of aggressive gesture, turbulent color and bold texture serve to convey the artist’s psyche and passion with disarming candor. He’s been compared often to his literary (and ancestral)counterparts in the world of Irish storytelling and readily admits his propensity for a remarkable degree of self-exposure in his work.
Primarily incorporating a deconstructed figurative element in its surrounding space, Greene’s work depicts a full spectrum of subjects both animate and inanimate. Women, however, seem to predominate. And with good reason: they’ve played crucial roles in the construct of this artist’s life – in the form of family members, wives, lovers, models and muses - and his dedication to both their form and their essence is evident. A recognizable “Greene Woman” (while not yet the name of an actual piece) has already entered the lexicon of talk about the artist’s work.
The sheer sensuality of images like Easy Chair and Angel, ATF and Emergence, reveal at a glance the satisfaction Mr. Greene derives from vigorous manipulation of a particular medium on the canvas. (Curators and framers have to exercise caution not to clip the tips of thick paint and deep pastel on his surfaces.) Layering, swirling, scumbling and smearing of gobs of paint or mashed pastel coax Greene’s women to emerge and declare themselves – often boldly. Greene’s a master at simultaneously evoking movement, texture, feeling and the sense of place. You can hear the music in Wedding Dance, sense the boredom of the model in Clock Watch, feel the passion in Tango and the omnipresence of Dug’s Girl.
“I love the moment of touch of the brush to surface. The magic of that has always worked for me,” explains the artist. And on women: “Fascinating, enigmatic, alluring. Enticing, contradictory, sometimes spiteful. Very complex - colorful. Everything you need to make an expressive painting, I suppose.”
That said, women remain only part of Greene’s compositional equation. His objects and landscapes, while recognizable, are always viewed through the eyes of an interpretive beholder, with many about unoccupied space - space into which one expects a living form to enter momentarily, or in which one may be concealed. About his occasional forays into the mountains and desert to draw from nature, Greene says “I depict the feel of the space I see, but often view it as a setting for a living form which for some reason never gets into the picture. Green Chair, for instance, invites – awaits – its occupant.”
Greene believes unqualifiedly in the notion that all matter exists forever, recurring and reappearing in the space in which we live, and that past, present and future are a continuum. Accordingly, he readily admits his images incorporate past and future, dreams and consciousness, the real and the imagined.
Wonderfully composed and inherently thought provoking. Green’s compositions can’t be taken lightly or considered merely in passing. “I say what I need to say in oil and pastel; and yes, I do sometimes raise my ‘voice,’” admits the artist. While both elegant and beautiful, Greene’s work is not for the faint of heart or those looking for the latest trend in colorful, decorative, technically perfect but artificially-themed “abstract” composition. A Greene painting is often a bit “untied,” possibly discordant, perhaps a little … messy. Precisely like the human experience they so powerfully convey.
Greene is notoriously, soft-spoken, preferring to communicate with his brushes, chalks and occasional assemblages of detritus. He’s been prodigious over the years, but less than assiduous in the promotion of his own talent. Not until 2009, after more than a decade of teaching by day and painting by night did the artist finally decide to devote time to the display of his own remarkable body of work, and to resume painting full-time.
In that year, he began the daunting task of curating and indexing more than 30 years of work, leaving collectors and museums now with an array of more than 300 distinctive pieces from which to choose.
His work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, the Pratt Institute Gallery, the 141 Prince St. Gallery, Queens College and the Studio School in NYC; at the Center for Contemporary Art, the Wiford & Vogt Gallery and the Dartmouth St. Gallery in New Mexico; and is included in private collections throughout the US, including Chase Manhattan Bank, Union Carbide, and the Albuquerque Museum.
In 2001, Santa Fe critic John Carver, writing in The Magazine wrote: “Greene is … exuberant … individualistic and inventive. [He] uses expressionism for both its abstract and figurative purposes, and often simultaneously. His imagery is ambiguous, absurd, emotive, and intelligent, and he goes at it with off-the-hook abandon. His work is sensual and wildly in-the-moment [and] … nothing seems derivative.”
Critic Wes Pullka, writing in The Albuquerque Journal about another Greene exhibit, later observed: “Among these works are elegant passages, violent slashes and … hues that accumulate … like wind-blown leaves. These paintings exude passion, violence, high energy…. They easily express our contemporary dilemma of terrorism, runaway resource consumption, corporate greed, the threat of open warfare and a staggering economy…. They are not appropriated images or in any way a copy of someone else’s composition.”