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Color Code

Sean Greene ’04MFA paints himself out of corners


Abstract painting with various shapes and dark colors.

Gather, 2017, 54 x 72 inches, silica on canvas (photo: Jim Gipe/Pivot Media)

From indigenous Mexican art to skateboarding and graffiti to Marimekko prints, the evolving visual vernacular in the paintings of Sean Greene ’04MFA is personal, on purpose. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and later in Connecticut and Vermont, Greene was surrounded by artists—an early immersion that he pulls from when making his own work.

Even so, he reached a point where “I didn’t know how to take it further,” he says. Coming to UMass for his MFA “proved to be a great experience,” Greene adds, and at the core of that was the color class taught by Ron Michaud, based on the teachings of Josef Albers. “I was able to really understand color in a way I had never considered before,” Greene explains. “Colors affect one another when they are near or surrounding or next to each other, just like people do.”

An incredible sensitivity to color is at the center of Greene’s work, as he keeps discovering new expressions. A series of works from around 2006 feature looping, overlapping lines influenced by the scrawled graffiti alongside New York City’s Metro-North trains and the swooping paths of skateboarders. Where the lines cross, the colors seem to mix like luminous overlaid transparencies—an illusion that Greene extended and expanded in several bright, gorgeous murals, including those he created for Facebook’s Cambridge offices in 2014.

“I’m tempted to say color is the through line in my work,” he explains, “but in a way, color correlates the most with emotion for me, so it could be that emotion is really the through line.” However, “The more I develop a body of work, the more defined it gets, and that’s when I start getting restless because I can predict the outcome. I like being in an unknown territory.” In those times, Greene recalls advice from UMass professor Hanlyn Davies to “invite a foreigner into your work. By which he meant, do something different, break one of your own rules.” Greene points out that “it’s a great way to keep learning and growing as a person and an artist.” His attitude has proven fruitful: He shows work frequently in New England and occasionally in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Oakland, California. In 2014 Greene was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship.

For viewers who might feel intimidated by abstraction, he notes, “We’re reacting to everything—an outfit, the color of a car on the street.” Greene’s advice is to pay attention to the response the artwork is evoking. “The artwork is an attempt to make a connection—to connect my own human experience to everyone else’s human experience. The art is in the exchange between the artist, the object, and the viewer.”

More recent work shows Greene thinking about ways to “move away from my use of color transparency illusions.” Where he previously “used color as a kind of light,” the newer work makes opaque color statements and uses iconography and pattern for very different effects. His statement about a recent show divulges, “For me, color composed in these abstract formats conveys inexpressible feelings similar to the way music does.”

The important work to make, Greene emphasizes, is your work. Frida Kahlo, for example, “made really courageous work that only she could make—it’s so personal.” As he’s painting, colors, patterns, certain shapes, or even compositions can echo things—perhaps a tapestry he remembers hanging in his grandmother’s bedroom, for example. “For me, that’s where the emotional power comes from,” Greene says. “If you’re an artist, your role is to keep zeroing in on what makes you you, what makes this the work that only you can make.”