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Celebrated painter Jonathan Green returns to his Lowcountry roots

The Homecoming



Many of the paintings in Jonathan Green's moderate-sized, impressive-looking new City Gallery show have his trademark color scheme and subject matter — women in wide-brimmed hats, hanging laundry, baby blue skies filled with fluffy flying saucer-shaped clouds, and the evidence of a strong summer breeze.

Green's acknowledgment of open spaces and stretches of ocean reflect his current situation. After three decades living out of state, he's moved back to the Lowcountry. He sees his native state as a place to be inspired, live within his means, be close to his folks, and get some shopping done.

For over 20 years, South Carolina native Jonathan Green lived and worked on 25 acres in the Florida Everglades. But times are tough, even for an internationally renowned and critically feted artist like Green. One of the most culturally significant artists of our time was facing foreclosure on his home.

"It's not possible to maintain the home, studio, and business in this economy when people aren't buying paintings that cost tens of thousands of dollars," he told the Naples Daily News this summer. "These have been some of the most difficult times I have ever experienced in my life."

His solution was a move back to the Palmetto State. The reasons weren't solely financial. He missed the convenience of living in a city, and he needed to be closer to his elder Lowcountry relatives. He relocated his stripped-down studio to Daniel Island this summer, where a run to the art supplies store doesn't take all day, but he still feels in touch with the countryside. "The natural environment is accessible visually," he says, although that could go for "anyplace in Charleston if you go across the right bridge. The topography, waterscapes, and skyscapes are all here."

Green is so fascinated with our natural environment that getting across those bridges can be troublesome. "I always prefer to have someone drive," he says. "I might be looking around so much I drive off the bridge."

For over 20 years, Green has been depicting Southern people and landscapes in vivid, sunlit oil on canvas tableaux, often inspired by his childhood in Gardens Corner near Beaufort. "I don't paint much architecture except the house I was born in," says Green. "I didn't see so many. I lived on a huge property where you could walk, be unto yourself, and not see another home. I want viewers to experience that."

Green's work is relevant now more than ever since it seems like every empty pocket of Charleston land is being eyed as a new real estate opportunity. His latest exhibition is filled with rippling dark blue water, abundant green grass, and distant islands. His closest visual links with the modern world are a farm bus and a simple yellow boat.

These idyllic landscapes are populated by African American figures, their faces and bodies obscured by their hats and their billowing, brightly colored dresses. These great squares and triangles of color on green backgrounds have become the artist's trademark, found on posters, in a stage show, and at galleries around the world. Is he worried about being pigeon-holed?

"My making art has nothing to do with what people think," Green answers. "So many millions of people have seen my paintings."

He feels that if viewers zero in on one similar aspect of his paintings, they're limiting themselves, not him. "Every time I look at a landscape around here, it's forever changing. It can never be the same for you if you look in the same direction." That's because he looks at the details as well as the broader view.

Examine the fine points in Green's art and you'll see why it's so lively. His bodies of water course with tiny lines, suggesting complex currents just under the surface. The fabric circles in "Dream Quilts" look like eyes staring out at you, connoting a peacock's splendid tail. In "Yellow Butterfly," the uneven lines on a quilt suggest a soft, breeze-blown texture. These yellow patterns connect visually with the butterfly, suggesting the link between humans and nature. There's a similar link in "Red and White Beach Ball," where the design on a beach ball matches swirling white hat ribbons. A fisherman's back in "Fishing Line" has been painted in segments as if he has scales.

"Beach Ball" is a rare example of someone at play in Green's work. Most of the time the subjects are toiling alone or engaged in some kind of communal activity. This is another echo of his younger days in Gardens Corner. "I never saw anyone not doing anything, or jogging," he says. "Every ounce of their time had a purpose."

Green protégé Jean Dorneville takes a similar tack with his rural acrylic paintings, also on display in the gallery. His landscapes are packed with workers dressed in eye-catching blue and yellow clothes. "Women's Work" tells the story of a day's activity, from baskets of laundry on the right to a bubbling pot on the left.

Fellow protégé Juan Diaz is also good at leading the eye around his pictures. A red pot, bag, dress, and bicycle are placed in a gentle curve for us to follow, indicating the bike's route.

Dorneville and Diaz are joined by the equally talented painter Reynier Llanes and potter Wille Leftwich. Green has helped them all develop their skills, and because there are nods to his work in all the paintings, the show is cohesive without becoming repetitive.

With prices ranging from $12,000 to $60,000, Green seems confident that the buyers are out there — they just need to find the work and experience it with the same awe he feels when he sees the world around him.

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