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Amy Greenan's Paintings at Canisius College

Amy Greenan's latest house paintings are small - a foot square.

It’s the Little Things

The writer Ernest Hemingway promoted the aesthetic principle of leaving things out, “and the omitted part,” he said, “would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

It’s a fundamental principle in Amy Greenan’s artwork. A dozen or so of her recent paintings, depicting her characteristic subject matter, houses, in her characteristic style—minimalist painterly—are currently on display in the Peter and Mary Lou Vogt Gallery in the Canisius College library.

She paints in sure-handed long brushstrokes in thin acrylics and just a few basic solid colors—sunny yellow, pale blue, black, white—that you can just about see through to the composition board ground in these examples, which is often left bare in small and larger areas.

What else is left out? Windows, doorways. Practically all architectural features beyond the basic structural plan. And landscapes around the houses. Such is the casual unconcern about specifying details. These are like preliminary sketches of just edifice essentials. Sometimes paint is allowed to run down in rivulets from painted areas above onto unpainted board below.

These could be houses under construction—the absence of landscapes suggests that likelihood, which then turns not so likely—or derelict or abandoned houses in a process of demolition. Or for that matter any stage in between.

So they are abstractions, but not abstractions pure and simple. More like abstractions of specific houses. Because they are individual in terms of architectural layout. And because in an artist’s statement Greenan talks about them as individuals, even as people are individuals. To her, the houses “have a history, memories, and vulnerability in the same way people do.”

She writes: “These houses have been my primary focus since 2009. In them I experiment with bright colors and comic-book inspired directness, and into these deceptively simple narratives, I investigate and interweave personal mysteries.”

The personal mysteries aren’t accessible to the observer, however. More of what’s left out. But just suggested by the abstract but formalist—the emphasis on formal qualities of shape, color, composition, and materials, paint, board, and laws of physics, the way excess paint runs down the board—depiction of the subject matter houses. And the observer will supply his or her own personal mysteries in trying to get at the personal mysteries of the artist. Personal mysteries, personal narratives.

The titles don’t help much. Titles such as One Way or Another, or Brighten the Corners, or The Beautiful Light. Or That’s What You Always Say, for a black silhouette structures against a white background. Several of the houses are just silhouettes.

The only title that seems completely comprehensible and apposite—not so much in reference to the individual work to which it is attached, the mystery about which remains personal, but to this artwork as a whole—is What’s Important. It’s what still there, after what’s omitted is omitted. The formal structure of the mystery, the narrative.

There’s more than a bit of an Edward Hopper quality about these works. The similar subtly formalist mode. About stories you don’t get to know the story about, because of what’s left out. With a distinct power to make the reader/observer feel something more than he or she might immediately understand. An Edward Hopper quality that’s also an Ernest Hemingway quality.

The title of the exhibit is Little Things, because these are smaller versions—12 inches by 12 inches, all of them—of her larger works, which have typically also been on canvas, not board. But all the same subject matter and aesthetic principles apply. The Canisius College exhibit continues through April 8.

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