The Los Angeles Times once called her “one of the most important painters in San Diego County” and a former curator of the San Diego Museum of Art once described her as “a great lady of great American artists.”
Despite these descriptions, a quick Google search for San Diego based artist Ethel Greene leads to very little information and even less to her actual work of art. But for those who knew her, collected her work, or even discovered it after her death in 1999, they feel like she was not just an artist ahead of her time, but one who never got her alive in a timely manner.
“To be honest, she’s not that well-known even in San Diego,” said Anita Feldman, assistant director of curatorial affairs and education at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA). “But I think it’s nice to show local artists. She is an important artist who transports things that are still relevant. “
There is reason to hope that the legacy of Ethel Greene will soon be re-examined thanks to efforts by SDMA to include three of her paintings in what Feldman calls a “reinterpretation” of the museum’s modern and contemporary art gallery and art can the america gallery. This also includes a restructuring of art itself, which is now presented thematically instead of chronologically. According to Feldman, this will enable “dialogues between artists from different decades and with different backgrounds”. Topics include “social awareness”, “identities” and “spirituality”.
On loan from the collection of Sandy and Bram Dijkstra, the three Ethel Greene pieces are splendidly representative of her surrealist-inspired style. This style is best conveyed in “Waterbed” (1970) and “Skyscape with Landscape” (1978). The first work in which a woman swims in a water bed in a bedroom certainly seems like something out of a dream.
“I think that’s the most moving. It has to do with depression and the artist’s feeling of isolation sinking into the world around her, ”says Feldman. “It’s really effective at grasping this type of mental state.”
Former Union-Tribune art critic Robert Pincus wrote several articles on Greene in the 1980s and 90s. He remembers her as something of an artist and someone who seemed content to produce work and spend her days in her Lloyd Ruocco-designed Spring Valley home.
“For me she was really a thoughtful painter. She obviously loved surrealism, but she saw it through her own prism to tell the things that interested her, “says Pincus, adding that he never felt she was bitter about not being recognized as some of their peers like Robert Irwin and John Baldessari.
“From my point of view, it got a lot of local recognition, but it wasn’t national,” says Pincus. “I think local artists, the people she figured out with, or even later artists, really respected her very much.”
Still, Feldman sees the inclusion of the Greene pieces in SDMA as yet another step in recognizing a local talent that may have been overlooked in favor of some of their male contemporaries.
“I think women artists are getting more recognition these days,” says Feldman. “This has become a real theme for museum exhibitions: the look at the unsung heroes of different generations of women artists who were typically overshadowed by men.”
Feldman expects the reorganization of the Modern and Contemporary Gallery to be completed by December 1st. In addition to the Greene pieces, Feldman says there will now be an “extraordinary” area of Latin American art that will include pieces by Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, José Clemente Orozco and Alice Rahon.
Another local artist, this time at the Art of the Americas Gallery, is Faith Ringgold, a mixed media artist best known for her impressive narrative quilts and once a professor of fine arts at the University of California San . worked Diego. One of these hand-painted and sewn quilts, “Seven Passages to a Flight,” according to Feldman, explores both “personal and broader issues about race and history.” The quilt will be on view until February, when it will not be shown for another five years due to conservation protocols.
Another highlight in the Modern and Contemporary Gallery is “Hammer and Sickle (and Unborn Baby)”, a plaster cast that was worn and painted by Frida Kahlo around 1950. Feldman describes the cast, which contains symbols that express Kahlo’s political beliefs, as well as depicting a fetus with a severed umbilical cord, as “intimate” and “personally powerful”.
“There are going to be some big changes in these galleries,” says Feldman. “We think people will find it exciting.”
Combs is a freelance writer.