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Lucha Libre!

At Fraser Gallery Georgetown to Nov. 16

Andrew Wodzianski desperately wants to get your attention. Sure, his pictures are hardly the stuff of controversy—they’re all carefully constructed, cleanly legible illustrations in oil paint. But Wodzianski turns his polite, manicured style toward dramatic oddball subjects, from masked Mexican wrestlers to costumed film-noir-ish villains. The artist clearly loves hamming it up; this, after all, is the man who attended at least one opening this summer dressed in a ninja suit.

Above all else, though, Wodzianski wants to be heard. So for “Lucha Libre!,” his current show at Fraser Gallery Georgetown, the artist goes for broke. Rather than rely on his audience’s ability to figure out what he’s been up to, Wodzianski tries to turn the modest-sized venue into a fully interactive computer-age experience, supplying gallerygoers with both a soundtrack to guide them through his 13 canvases and a virtual forum for supplying their own feedback. Viewers are encouraged to download a podcast that features commentary tracks from Wodzianski and colleagues of his from the College of Southern Maryland; the viewer can listen to these tracks, wandering from piece to piece while plugged into an MP3 player. There’s also superficially topical music—two images of brothers in devil masks, for example, are regrettably matched with INXS’s “Devil Inside.” And with the help of a cell phone, viewers can receive text messages about each of the works on display—or even call in and record their own “Wodcast” commentaries.

All of this electronic window dressing does manage to shed some light on Wodzianski’s work—but not necessarily in the way the artist intended. He hungers for clear, untroubled communication with an audience; that much is evident. But what he has to say—about art, the possibilities of technology, or actual life—turns out to be precious little indeed. Wodzianski offers exuberant silliness and the trappings of great art of the past. Beyond these, there’s only silence.

Take, for example, Persephone (2005). In this painting, a lone female figure in a bright-red dress is shown looming, dramatically foreshortened. The viewer’s eye sweeps upward, underneath the figure’s face, which is framed with acidic-green reflected light. Here, as in many of the pieces in the show, Wodzianski employs vertiginous angles and radical cropping to push the figure into the foreground, crowding out almost all spatial referents. This technique, of course, speaks to the influence of contemporary photography and cinema on composition.

But in his subject matter, Wodzianski is reaching back for the ancient mythological associations one might expect from a Baroque history painting. Persephone, as Lynne Clement-Bremer reminds us in the accompanying podcast, was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus in Greek mythology. She was abducted by Hades and made to be queen of the underworld for part of every year. Here, indeed, both the innocent girl and the dark queen are shown—the latter represented by a sagging rubberized Halloween mask, hanging from the figure’s hand and taking up the entire lower third of the canvas.

In this case, as in all of Wodzianski’s work, the mask is a put-on, a cartoonish bit of play-acting that never really transforms the model or transports the viewer. The woman standing in for Persephone here certainly doesn’t look like an ancient Greek maiden; she’s entirely contemporary. The space she inhabits—or at least the small bit of it we can see—is nondescript, perhaps a studio interior, artificially illuminated with harsh fluorescent light. Wodzianski supplies the trappings of drama, but doesn’t allow his model to be fully absorbed by her chosen role. The artist is in strange territory here, between traditional paint handling, genre subjects, and contemporary models using obvious, artificial props. The result is either deliberate self-defeating irony or just a grab-bag assortment of mismatched pictorial ideas.

Lucha Libre! No. 1 (2005) shows how funny the mismatch can be. Sitting to the left of the gallery’s entrance, it’s the first picture to greet the viewer. The work is a glistening, thinly applied slick of pigment, appearing as if it had just received a fresh coat of glossy varnish. In the piece, four masked wrestlers—all heads, shoulders, and arms—jostle and push at one another, filling the foreground, spilling into the viewer’s space. With its unrelentingly flat surface texture and its reliance on translucent glazes of monochrome red and green over shades of warm brown, the painting feels like a hand-tinted photograph. The figures almost have the look of a Caravaggio—artificially lit bodies, viewed from the waist up in an indefinite space. But Wodzianski’s treatment of light and shade is far more diagrammatic. His feather-soft blended edges begin to look more like airbrush than oil—a cheesy simulacrum of the perfected, unreal neoclassical sensuousness of a painting by Ingres. Wodzianski is thinking in terms of traditional fine art, but he’s producing something more akin to superficially slick commercial illustration.

Clearly the artist loves the Mexican-wrestler phenomenon, and his giddy enthusiasm does manage to buoy this piece. If you care to find out more about these particular figures—say, why exactly they’re in this funny little enclosed space together—you might use your cell phone to text-message the number on the wall next to this painting, or that of its sister piece, Lucha Libre! No. 2 (2005). The latter causes the not-so-helpful note to pop up on your screen: “The model on the far right has a huge penis. His identity is masked to protect the public at large.” So much for the virtues of instant feedback.

The podcast promises more substance. “What is the function of a mask?” a voice asks through your earbuds as you examine these half-naked masked men. “The primary function is to physically change our appearance, to hide our identity and take on the identity of the mask instead.” The truism sounds like a goof on those recorded tours that the National Gallery provides for its big blockbuster shows—except the intention here seems to be equally serious, in its way.

Wodzianski seems entirely unconcerned about the dangers of an artist’s saying too much. This puts him at odds with much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the business of art. MFA programs, for example, are a proving ground for students to develop strategies to talk about their art with learned-sounding evasiveness. The successful graduate student practices addressing contemporary discourse without really exposing the guts of his work. Or there’s the inscrutability option—simply keeping mum, admitting nothing. (Think of the reticence of Ed Ruscha, who, in his remarks for his retrospective at the National Gallery of Art earlier this year, shut down all efforts to attach any significance, any real associations, to any of the strange texts appearing in his word-pictures.) Frequently, of course, whatever critics or curators may be able to suss out of a body of work is bound to be better than the artist’s dim understanding of his own obsessions.

Artistic logorrhea is a real pitfall, as Wodzianski demonstrates. In the lone podcast narrated by the artist himself, he cops to something that maybe he should’ve kept tight to the vest. In this commentary track, he talks about the relation of a piece titled Mercy (2005) to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. In the painting, a figure in a brown pinstripe suit towers over the viewer, his jacket button peeking out ominously just below eye level. This man fills the frame, and his head is cropped out of the top of the canvas. We see just enough to know that he’s wearing a grinning green-and-brown-striped reptilian mask. Pushed into the very foreground, blurred by their apparent proximity to a camera lens, the man’s hands struggle to remove a pair of green surgical gloves. Has he just stepped back from the brink of terrible violence?

The viewer might well wonder about those green gloves—or about the open, ominously glowing briefcase in the similar painting, Motive (2005). The answer, in both cases, is that the objects are MacGuffins. “The MacGuffin is a device,” Wodzianski explains, “that was employed by Hitchcock, that created motivation and drive for any of the characters in his films….What the MacGuffin actually is is far less important than the simple fact that it is able to hold one’s attention….What are those gloves [in Mercy] doing, and what is inside of that suitcase [in Motive]? The answer is: It doesn’t matter.”

Wodzianski may be indulging in a little self-deprecating humor, but it sounds as if he’s pleading for the irrelevance of his own work. If, really, none of this means anything, if both the paintings and the podcasts merely exist to hold our attention, with no other aim than entertainment or whimsy qua whimsy, then the viewer may rightly feel duped. It really can’t matter what any of these commentaries say, then; they’re in the service of a rudderless artistic act, communicating nothing. Wodzianski wants your attention, and he has a certain number of visual tricks that he can cobble together to get it. But once he’s got it, he apparently falters. This, then, is art for art’s sake in the worst sense—pictures that speak only about the conventions of narrative, completely marginal to life as it’s lived—and the podcasts serve only to delay recognition of that fact.

This is unfortunate, because the artist obviously has a real enthusiasm for new technologies as some sort of way forward in art. If only with “Lucha Libre!” Wodzianski had found a way to make painting and new media genuinely speak about one another—an exchange, instead of an addendum. His interests in cinema and photography have made at least superficial inroads into his paintings; the podcasts sit completely outside the work, pure publicity stunt and distraction. For representational painting to continue to have any sort of substantial life, it needs somehow to address the ways new technologies shape the act of seeing. If Wodzianski had seized on the opportunity he’s created for himself here, he perhaps could have found a new life for an activity that otherwise becomes necessarily frivolous. CP