Emotional art for 2020
Working alone and being socially distant hasn't been a problem in the past eight-plus months for painter Gregory Grenon.
He enjoys being alone, and Grenon and wife and fellow artist Mary Josephson keep socially distant on purpose at their Linnton studios.
"We're hanging in there in this terrible time we're having," said Grenon, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions. "I love being alone."
"We work alone in our studios all the time; being alone like this is really no different for us in our work conditions," Josephson said. "Our studios are 100 yards away from each other in Linnton, and we can work all day and not talk to each other at all. We don't go into each other's studios. We really work in isolation.
"Our biggest worry is just getting the work in one piece and getting it properly presented to the gallery."
Grenon's work emphasizes faces and emotions, and his latest body of work, "Introduction to Character," a two-year project with some 30 paintings, has been presented online by Russo Lee Gallery.
It's one of the many Portland art galleries navigating the new normal of openings when possible, exhibit viewing by appointment only and online presentations.
It's been an area where there has been plenty of content to choose from for Grenon, 72 — as the pandemic and restrictions, as well as other news centering on social justice and politics, have brought out emotions in everybody.
He mostly features women, as Grenon has been captivated by women in his life, and his work entails reverse painting on glass.
Grenon said last week that "this is the first week I've actually came out of the blackboard jungle, because I've been working on the show," he said. It's a relief to be done with a project, he said, more than anything.
"I didn't think I'd ever get it done," he said. "I work with a lot of emotions, and it's been very emotional."
It's not possible to not see emotions in people, he said. Grenon finds inspiration from television and movies (such as "Dirty Dancing"), newspapers, magazines and photographs — and not live models.
"I've thought about painting people with their masks on, but I've not done it, yet," he said. "(Masks) bother the hell out of me; that's bothered me the most with what's going on."
Emotions have ranged from anger (over just about everything) to happiness (as in "happy if they're not sick," he said). "It's been very worrisome," he added.
"I'm just an artist, I paint it like I see it."
Faces also have been intriguing to him.
"I see a face and can't take my eyes off it," he said. "I'm into the heads and faces, I slowly got into the shoulders, then had to do hands, and the rest of body. I taught myself how to do it. I didn't do rigorous training, I taught myself to paint. Every time I paint I learn something new. … I see colors when I look at people's faces, like each color is an emotion."
Oh, and the color usage: "I want you to be able to see the picture from across the street," Grenon said.
By happenstance, about five years into a career that started in the late 1960s, Grenon painted on some glass and discovered the rare art form. He paints on one side, and you flip over the glass and the image appears. Glass comes in many forms — discarded windows and doors, fresh sheets — and he uses it all.
"I've been painting since '73 on glass," he said. "Usually people do it and move on.
"Later in my life I learned that I was dyslexic." So, it makes sense, he added, that he paints in reverse on glass.
Said Josephson: "He doesn't look at it all until he's done. It's an amazing process, his way of working. It's very unusual and always a surprise."
Grenon's Portland story goes back to the early 1970s when the late Arlene Schnitzer represented him through the Fountain Gallery. He hails from Detroit, Michigan, and moved to Portland for its beauty and vibe, and he has thrived as an artist, boasting public and private collections including at the Seattle Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Microsoft Corp., and the cities of Portland and Seattle.
After Fountain, he had showings through Jamison-Thomas Art Gallery for several years, and then the gallery now known as Russo Lee.
Today, "I've shown across the world," he said.
He enjoys getting feedback about his work. Some of the best comes from kids — and people such as the homeless.
"Some people came off the street looking for a couple bucks for booze … they came into the gallery, they saw my work and said, 'I know those people!'" And, that was a compliment. I woke up the guy, it was the best part of his day."
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