Visual Arts


When audiences went to Peter Greenaway's 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, expecting to see a sexy comedy in a restaurant, they were perhaps among the most unprepared audiences in film history. Rather than a knockabout farce, Greenaway served up a baroquely ferocious black comedy that used a restaurant, gluttony and cannibalism as metaphors for self-devouring Western civilization.

Audiences came and realized they weren't in Hollywood anymore, but they did come. Despite this and other critical and commercial coups de cinema behind him, Greenaway now finds himself in a most ironic position. The internationally lauded filmmaker sees cinema woefully crimping his visionary dreams.

His three-hour, 1980 Swiftian mockumentary The Falls and his first dramatic feature, 1982's The Draughtsman's Contract, were breakthroughs for him and for the British Film Institute, which funded them. A Zed & Two Noughts (1985) was a masterpiece of Darwinian musings and the black comic arts.

Drowning by Numbers (1987) so intrigued the jury at the Cannes Film Festival that it created a special award for the film. The Cook, the Thief upended the U.S. movie-rating system in 1989 when Greenaway refused to cut it for an R rating. Prospero's Books, his phantasmagoric, 1991 adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, was applauded at film festivals from Telluride to New York as a great valedictory to the career of actor John Gielgud and as an example of how digital technology could permit dazzling images in films that did not star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Another filmmaker would be satisfied with such a track record.
But no. Greenaway's love-hate relationship with film reached a dramatic level in the '90s, when he embarked on a series of art exhibitions from Venice to Vienna, Paris to Geneva.

And now, ASU Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe continues its own exploration of multimedia art with a survey of Greenaway's life work that carries a telling title: "Peter Greenaway: If Only Film Could Do the Same." It marks the first American exhibition of the artist's work west of New York. The show's curator, Heather Lineberry, says she's puzzled about why it's taken so long for Greenaway's paintings, drawings and collages to move west of the Hudson River, considering that he's been a working artist since the mid-'60s.

"Part of it may be that Greenaway is so centered in Europe, and now Japan. His films are even starting to have a hard time being shown here--the Valley Art Theatre, for example, tried to get his latest feature, The Baby of Macon, and couldn't. Also, there's sometimes more of a tie in the art world between New York and Europe than New York and the rest of the country," she says.

Indeed, Greenaway is now in Europe (specifically, Amsterdam), where he discusses by phone the background and meanings of the show's work. Taking a break from rehearsal of his first-ever opera, Rosa (a collaboration with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen), Greenaway muses first about his 1972, flesh-colored collage, from which this exhibit takes its title.

"I still believe that painting is the supreme cutting edge of visual investigation, beside which cinema is very conservative," he says. What attracted him to painting as a student at England's Walthamstow College of Art in the early '60s "was the sense of freedom, even the freedom to fail, and certainly to have second, third and fourth thoughts about the work, which is a painterly freedom. I regret those are not possible when you manufacture a film.

"Another more interesting and profound attraction was that, for me, 20th-century painting has developed a vocabulary which has very much to do with form and surface, things not really at the forefront in cinema, [in which] the old concerns for plot and characterization hold sway. Cinema also creates a time frame in which the viewer is fixed, whereas in painting, the opposite is true.

"Viewers in an exhibition are in a valuable position, where they can look at an image for a few seconds or much longer. These are what make me say if only film could do the same."

Some works at ASU, like the 1974 series "Water Papers"--framed spectra, multicolored graphs and rectangles, all repeatedly drenched in water--aren't related to a film at all. Others refer directly to films in the exhibition (Drowning by Numbers and Prospero's Books will be viewable on laser disc in a room off the main gallery) and at Valley Art Theatre (The Cook, the Thief and Zed).

"Sheep and Tides," a mysterious, playful pencil drawing of sheep standing on a beach at low tide and tethered to stakes next to chairs holding full cups of tea, is a direct image from Drowning by Numbers. The incandescent "McCay's Grid" (named after Little Nemo creator Winsor McCay) graphically suggests the narrative of Prospero's Books, with frames color-coded to correspond to the emotional temperature of the film's scenes.

In a careful, long-distance collaboration with Greenaway, Lineberry has assembled a sampling from the artist's key periods. His masterful, hilarious short films of the '70s are represented here in two ways. Vertical Features Remake, one of his early mockumentaries, includes geometrical, rainbow-colored landscape studies that are examined, reexamined and mangled by the film's fictional Institute for Reclamation and Restoration. His deeply autobiographical A Walk Through H is, on one level, a film of (another) gallery showing of his artwork--in this case, fanciful "maps" that offer curlicued, mazelike routes from one section to another of the land named "H."

At ASU, Greenaway notes, "we're back again in that crossover between film as an exhibition and the exhibition as a film. The whole film of The Draughtsman's Contract, for instance, is, in a sense, an excuse to display 12 drawings." One superb collage here, "Raphael's Pyramid," cites Greenaway's film The Belly of an Architect, about an art exhibition gone out of control, as well as images of Romanesque sculpture, Renaissance and classical architecture and a text on how to build a human pyramid.

For ASU lecturer and artist Albert Stewart, the pyramid--a recurring image in the show--sums up Greenaway's interest in "classicism, the Platonic ideal, the pyramid as symbol of the ultimate in cultural achievement. But as in his constant use of the classical nude body, Greenaway gives us an image of how oppressive classicism is. Through his work, you get a sense that the Renaissance, which we've lived with since the 15th century, is finally coming to an end."

Tempe viewers will be able to hop back and forth between the screened films and the hanging images referring to them. Resisting what she calls "contemporary museums' urge to hang art in a white box," Lineberry has arranged for the museum walls to be painted gray-green, with the artwork illuminated by theatrical lighting. The plan, she says, is a kind of homage to the exhibition style Greenaway has used in his large European shows.

The work related to Prospero's Books holds a special place here. Lineberry says the piece, "Prospero's Books: A Catalogue," is "a gorgeous display of the books which burst before our eyes on paper and in the film." And the show's most recent works, part of a much larger series of paintings and drawings titled "The Audience" (arrangements of framed and disembodied heads, much as an actor might see an audience), actually began, Greenaway says, when he was conceiving the mythological figures who populate the magical island of Prospero's Books.

Some works, such as "Luper at Antwerp" and "Luper on Sark," spell out in abstracted, painterly terms the narrative construction of a film yet to be made--in this case, The Tulse Luper Suitcase.

But another work from the Drowning by Numbers series, "Handicap Catch II-Pyramids," marks a special moment of completion and satisfaction in Greenaway's creative life.

"The notions that I originally imagined for this scene in the film [in which the central characters, depicted as pyramids in the drawing, play a game of skittles] were beautifully realized on the film itself. The imagination that goes into a sequence either never gets its full implications on the film screen, or you get forced by shooting circumstances into a completely different direction you never intended.

"What happened to me that October day while shooting so rarely happens when making a film."

"Peter Greenaway: If Only Film Could Do the Same" opens with a reception at 7 p.m. Friday and continues through January 15, 1995, at ASU Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center, Tenth Street and Mill in Tempe. Exhibit admission is free. The show also features three talks on Greenaway by Valley film experts, and Valley Art Theatre will screen Greenaway's films A Zed & Two Noughts and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover from October 21 to 28. For more information, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.