In March, Wynne Greenwood was helping her mother organize the family house in Everett when she came across a letter she wrote in the second grade. It was a simple letter, written in pencil, and it was furious. "If you would only let me keep it in my room," she wrote. "That lunch box was like a sister to me."
Her mother had thrown away her lunch box in order to transition her twin daughters into carrying paper bags to school. Greenwood doesn't remember writing the letter or leaving it for her mother to find.
Looking back now, Greenwood sees it as a watershed event. "I think it started like that," she says.
She's talking about her life as an artist.
How funny: Artists always start out with pencil and paper—but they're usually drawing. Greenwood's origin myth is abnormal, just like her lesbian-feminist-video-music-performance-installation-sculpture work is abnormal. Both are urgent, DIY, funny, and above all, honest and strange. She is almost always present in her work, interacting with something absent: footage recorded and playing back on video, a person in another location, voices off camera, a drawing meant to stand in for some invisible force, such as her own anxiety. She is always collaborating, either with other artists around the country, like K8 Hardy and Nicole Eisenman, or with her own sisterly alter egos.
For the last two years, Greenwood has been living quietly. She moved back to Seattle from New York in 2006 (she's originally from Redmond), but doesn't often show up at art openings. When she does, she's among a lot of people who have heard of her, but almost nobody who knows her, or has even seen her work.
Greenwood never really was an art-world insider, but she was—and remains—a cult star with respect from the formal art world. People are more familiar with her reputation than her work. They basically know one project, the one that kept her crisscrossing the country from 2001 to 2006, the one that landed her in the Whitney Biennial in 2004, the ultimate prize for a rising contemporary artist. That project came from the music world, specifically the Olympia riot grrrl scene where, in 1999, Greenwood started a band. It was called Tracy + the Plastics and once it got going, everybody wanted it.
Tracy + the Plastics was a pop band made up of three women, all of whom were Greenwood. She'd sing and perform live as Tracy, in front of prerecorded video projections of Nikki and Cola, the drummer and keyboardist. Onstage, they'd have funny, sweet disagreements about what to do next, or about how to practice being lesbians. They were Greenwood's ticket. She made her name performing at avant-garde spaces in New York like the Kitchen—as well as gay clubs, garages, university auditoriums, and the Whitney—and got into the graduate program for artists at Bard.
But at some point, she started to become anxious. "I put things into the public that are really raw," she says. "I have this instinct to share, but that instinct was also making me feel unsafe."
A pain showed up in her lower right side. She thought she had appendicitis, then thought she had a tumor on her ovary. She finished her degree and moved back to the cocoon of Seattle. About a month later, she went to Olympus, the Korean women's spa in Tacoma, and told a masseuse what was going on. The masseuse put her in a position that gave her excruciating pain for five seconds. Then the pain melted away.
"It was a cramped muscle from sitting and driving for basically five years," she says, still in disbelief. "It was tour!"
By early 2006, Greenwood was finished with Tracy + the Plastics. She took "the band" out to dinner to finalize the breakup. Uncannily, she was seated at a table for four—enough room for Tracy, Nikki, Cola, and Greenwood. When Greenwood informed her British label, Too Pure, that she wanted to do the next record solo—"solo"?—and didn't want to tour, the label dropped her. It was the end of an era.
Soon after came a cathartic work called Peas. It was a video installation shown last year at the Berlin gallery of Susanne Vielmetter, a German dealer based in L.A. who champions Greenwood's largely unsellable work.
In the video, Greenwood is lying down, questioning a drawing of a woman on her stomach, the personification of her anxiety. "Why are you still here?" Greenwood says softly. "You jerk." She starts to cry, violently but silently.
The video cuts to the drawing, and a deeper version of Greenwood's voice responds dismissively to her crying, like an abusive spouse: "Babe, I'm just livin'." The fake baritone is wrenching but also sidesplitting.
Peas is both scripted and impromptu, something that feels not like performance, but like revelation. Her unplanned crying is a rupture (for her and for the audience) that recontextualizes the work that came before it: She isn't only a construction, she's really in there, and she's letting you see it, right up to when the camera cuts to the baritone joke.
Peas also combines childish rendering with very adult questions of power. Has the reality of living as a lesbian feminist in a straight patriarchy ever been represented so vulnerably? No wonder this artist, and this woman, needed some shelter.
What Seattle brought was peace and proximity to her family. They're creative and close. Greenwood's father is a former poet. Her mother, a writer, makes baskets out of cedar strips, flat reeds, or sometimes raffia (she also used to make corn-husk ladies for sale at the farmers' market), and baskets appeared in Greenwood's solo show in L.A. this past winter, along with another form of folk art: a music video that Greenwood also put on YouTube.
But Seattle has not meant luxury or time off. Since her return, Greenwood has had the two gallery shows (in L.A. and Berlin), performed at Art Basel Miami Beach, and worked as a full-time nanny to support herself. This summer, she took a job helping young convicts paint murals. For that job, she waxed her mustache. She has a soft, black, natural mustache, and being without it made her feel less like herself—but she needed to blend in, to pass. Now it's growing back.
This spring at On the Boards, Greenwood will premiere a new performance installation called Sister Taking Nap. In her studio just south of the Central District, a plaster woman is already lying facedown on the floor, waiting to be drawn into Greenwood's band of sisters. "Sister" is a better word than "alter ego" for most of the women in Greenwood's art. These sisters are digital, or messy cutouts, or wearing baskets for heads. (Or they are lunch boxes.) They are hopeful and worked up, yelling "Don't disappear!" at the fading specter of feminism, or they are bored, silently swinging beer bottles between their legs, ticking off the seconds of their disaffection without complaint.
The objects and characters in Greenwood's work are profoundly separated, by dimensions (two versus three) and by degrees of presence (live, filmed, taken from stock footage). Their coexistence is messy and layered, reflecting mixed-media lives, with all the attending fullness and dislocation. If photographer Cindy Sherman used singularity (herself in single frames) as a vehicle for infinite fragmentation, Greenwood uses multiplicity (many women in many frames) as solidarity.
Her work doesn't feel like a fight—but it is, and it has just begun.