This past Thursday afternoon, the singer Adam Green flitted around the gallery The Hole, installing a show called “Houseface” that features 30 or so paintings he’d made in the last six weeks. “Houseface” has a simple enough concept: deconstruct a select group of faces and then use them to make architectural paintings. The faces in question are those of Elmo and Big Bird from Sesame Street, and Garfield the cat. At the gallery, Mr. Green, 31, picked up a painting and put it down. He cycled through a pile of four. He gave instructions on where to put a two-foot-high papier-mâché mushroom from the Super Mario Brothers video games, a separate installation in The Hole’s second room. He wore a low-brimmed hat and a scraggly beard and looked very much like the messianic Bob Dylan at the end of The Last Waltz, minus the pacific nature. A blonde girl came in to help hang the works (it was a bit of a last-minute installation), and he tried to say something along the lines of “Hi, how are you? Thanks for coming by,” in a casual way, but went through all the words and body language so quickly that he seemed to be talking to himself.
Soon he would be fucked in the ass, onscreen, in the gallery’s second room, where they were screening a movie he’d shot entirely on an
iPhone last year during a period when he was really into ketamine. The Super Mario installation is actually a set from that movie, The Wrong Ferrari, and had spent the past year in Macaulay Culkin’s apartment, because Mr. Culkin had liked it enough to keep it around after the shoot.
“I felt that I was exploring some avenues that were sort of like internal levels,” Mr. Green said of his ketamine period, “and so, much like how in Dante’s Divine Comedy they go through levels of Hell and Purgatory, I guess I was comparing it, in a way, to the video game Super Mario, which was broken into levels. I’ve actually heard it said, I think it was in The New Yorker, that the designer made the levels to represent the levels of bureaucracy. And of course, the ultimate bureaucracy is in Kafka, so when I started thinking of ketamine as a Kafkaesque drug. It’s like, ‘Oh it’s called K and he calls a character K, so maybe the street name for ketamine could be Josef K.’ The drug dealer didn’t think that was that funny.”
I asked him if he was still into ketamine. “No, not at all,” he said. “I thought it was giving me brain damage.”
The great thing about Mr. Green’s music, made first with his freak folk band The Moldy Peaches, then across seven solo albums over a period of eight years, is that it repulses almost as strongly as it attracts. The melodies are catchy, but the lyrics are completely abstract, or unrelatable. The Ellen Page cover of “Anyone Else But You,” on the Billboard chart-topping Juno soundtrack, for example, excised the line “Squinched up your face and did a dance/You shook a little turd out of the bottom of your pants” from the otherwise cute song.
His art is not so different. Nearly all the pieces—most of them acrylic-on-canvas paintings—really do incorporate Elmo, Big Bird and Garfield, though always abstracted to a point where the pieces appear at once both familiar and strange. He breaks them down to their most fundamental elements: Garfield’s eyeballs and orange coloring, or Big Bird’s pink-on-purple eyelids. Mr. Green was raised upstate and seems to have a genuine enthusiasm for these characters. He named his first solo album “Garfield.” This isn’t to say that their relationships are always copacetic. At one point during the install, he spun around and shot the room a look. “I still find it hard to believe that people can walk around this exhibit and not just see a ton of eyes staring at them,” he said.
The major influences for the show come from high art, relatively speaking—Mr. Green ticked off Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Antoni Gaudí, along with George Condo and the folk artist James Castle. Near the front of the gallery, the pieces are abstracted to about four units of Muppet, the result looking like something by Piet Mondrian. All the works in the show sell for five figures, and if he had to predict which ones would sell first, he said it would be these. “I like plaid,” he said of the more abstract ones. “It’s kind of funny, but I guess I just wanted to make a plaid that wasn’t the Burberry thing, that was just plaid.”
“This is a show about a very simple idea,” he said. “I developed it for a little while, but ultimately it’s just a design system. It’s just a texture.”
“Through sentimentality,” he added, “you carry these characters with you into your adult life, and they have a resonance in your adult brain despite the fact that you’re not doing anything with that information. But for some reason you care a lot about them and enjoy seeing them. I’ve just noticed that that’s true. It’s not that I want it to be true, I’ve just noticed it, and this was a show that I noticed I could do. And I just put together this simple idea. But then obviously there are many things that I’d like to do with this now that I have these building blocks. First I wanted to show people the basic ideas.”
The show at The Hole came out of one he did at Dustin Yellin’s The Intercourse in Brooklyn in June. “Cartoon & Complaint” featured the original Elmo, Big Bird and Garfield portraits among other works (horses with 50 eyes, Aztec pyramids, etc.). Though he painted in high school, he picked it up again only recently, around 2010, as a way of putting his mind off his divorce. When Kathy Grayson, The Hole’s owner, approached him after the Intercourse show, she suggested that he focus on the cartoon characters, and head in the architectural direction. Since then, it’s been nonstop painting. He responded in the negative when I asked if he’d had a chance to sleep, and then also responded negatively when I asked, at a cafe later, if he was making any music these days.
“Oh God,” he said to the second question. “I want to make a movie called Aladdin, be Aladdin. Actually I don’t know if it’ll be a sequel to The Wrong Ferrari. I think it’ll just start from scratch with me as Aladdin. I like Aladdin. I think it’s an interesting chance to talk about capitalism—it’s a fairy tale about unlimited material wealth.”
The current show is essentially about acknowledging the validity of your referents. He used to like Mondrians, he said at the cafe, because they reminded him of a Monopoly board. What’s so wrong with that? David Berman from Silver Jews once told him that he wasn’t shocked by the artistic statement when he first learned of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. He was more shocked to learn that urinals existed in the early 20th century.
“And that was my first thought too!” Mr. Green said. “‘Oh, weird, they had urinals back then?’ Then you just configure your brain to participate in whatever narrative people are telling you is the important one to think.”
Him: “My parents expressed sadness that the antiwar movement was coupled with the free love movement. They thought that the antiwar movement was very important and real and that the free love movement robbed it of its importance. In the rock ’n’ roll narrative we’re taught that Dylan going electric was important and amazing, and that the people who were booing him were squares. But that’s just a way to rewire things, just because we’re influenced by historical brainwashing.”
Me: “Do you think they were squares?”
Him: “Obviously not! These people were willing to go to jail for this stuff. I mean no more so than the people down at Occupy Wall Street, you know?”
Me: “But I meant the people vilifying Dylan.”
Him: “I’m a square, you know? Making this square art. What were you saying?”
Everyone at the opening was moist and aloof because The Hole doesn’t have air conditioning and because Mr. Green is a rock star but is loath to be compared to one, which means the orbit of his entourage has to be wide. It felt like people in many clusters were glancing at Mr. Green knowingly, as if to project, “I’ll talk to him later.”
Ms. Grayson, wearing a leopard-print dress, stood against a wall looking like she was waiting for something to happen. She smoked a cigarette. “I couldn’t quite bring myself to have the gallery be empty in August,” she said, and then praised Mr. Green’s work ethic, along with that of John Link, the main person responsible for installing everything in an extremely short period of time, spelling his name for me.
Not everyone in attendance was a fan of Mr. Green’s music. “I despise it, actually,” said a handsome guy in all black as his girlfriend laughed. He wore sunglasses. “It doesn’t speak to me.”
But the show earned high marks from Ruben Schnell, who’d stopped in from Hamburg. “I like it, it’s funny. And I usually don’t like to be made to laugh through art.” Would this fly in Hamburg? “If he did it, sure.”
Mr. Green seemed pleased with everything. He posed for a picture, holding a bouquet, seated cross-legged on an Elmo-influenced cube. He said his realtor had given him the flowers, which sounded about right.
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