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“Rewilding,” a solo show by Julie Wolfe at Hemphill Fine Arts, gestures at an ambivalent state between nature and civilization: reclamation, either in terms of preservation or, perhaps, something darker and more apocalyptic. The painter articulates this struggle through a mix of abstract-expressionist painting and more symbolic marks—a conflict between structure and natural states, hard-edged and field painting.
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That’s at least one of Wolfe’s aims. Works like “Rewilding 2,” a muted abstract field over which she has painted a series of fleur-de-lis-like symbols, makes the tension apparent. But she also undercuts the narrative with paintings that drive at some age-old questions about what’s possible in the pictorial plane, and what painterly decisions can or cannot be taken for granted. Wolfe’s vision of nature is one of a background in conflict with a foreground, a clever strategy for an artist who knows full well that a background is never just a background.
“Then Gone” is an almost photographic depiction of nature—or rather, a depiction of the depiction of nature. It is not photorealistic; it’s photographic, with a foreground field that appears in focus and legible as vegetation or flowers and a background field that appears to be the same patch of flowers but blurred beyond recognition. There are, of course, no flowers at all, and Wolfe is touching on ideas well explored by Gerhard Richter and other painters since the 1970s. But here, the effect is welcome, and if she’s citing anyone with her emphasis on the pictorial plane and its potential, it’s Cy Twombly, through the apparent relief she finds in such inventive mark-making.
With two installation works, Wolfe’s show finds less purchase in ideas about sustainability. “Waterway,” a sequence of six glass jars filled with water from local sources and found biomatter—vegetation, bugs, and muck—appears to be a warning about the state of Washington rivers and streams. “Bioscape” is the same piece, but presented at the scale of many dozen jars. The latter work especially reads as a painting, with hues ranging from not-quite-natural viridians to toilet-bowl-cleaner blues to nickel-tailing neons. An installation of pink and brown water isn’t a warning about the Potomac River, not really. Arrayed as they are in this show, racks on racks of illuminated colorful water read like another painting.
Which is an admirable tactic, if not necessarily the one Wolfe set out with. One unresolved tension in the show is how fully narrative Wolfe wants these paintings to read. Her approach to painting and the pictorial plane works as an elegant analogy to issues of nature and reclamation and encroachment, but not so much a statement about these things. Wolfe is at her best when she’s exploring those themes through the intuitive process of painting as discovery. There are many good examples on view and, I suspect, many more avenues that she has yet to discover.