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“Patrick Wilson: 1:00 P.M.”

At Fusebox to May 31

“Why did I move to Southern California?” Wax’s Joe Sib once sang. “Smog isn’t blue, someone should have warned you.” Well, it isn’t red or green or indigo, either, but step inside Fusebox and there you have it: Roy G. Biv-ing its way from ceiling to floor, a whole dirty rainbow of smog. Arrayed in three columns of seven, the impeccable canvases of Three Weeks represent 21 days of unnaturally tinted, vaporous filth.

The artist, Patrick Wilson, is, naturally, from L.A. It’s hard to imagine it now, but once upon a time it was thought that serious art couldn’t be made within a half-day’s drive of the Hollywood sign—this, even given the evidence of “Nature Boy” lyricist eden ahbez, who used to sleep out under the damn thing every night. Some 35 years after Ed Ruscha set fire to the Los Angeles County Museum, it is known that certain types of serious art can’t be made anywhere else.

Chalk up the classic SoCal vibe to a clued-in, zoned-out cool that is the taciturn West Coast counterpart to voluble East Coast urbanity. It’s an attitude rather than an argument, and it calls for a lot less talking and a lot more pointing at stuff. Though Light and Space guru Robert Irwin would learn to chatter like a philosopher, he is forever tattooed with the Paul Valéry paraphrase that titles his bio: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”

Made to be seen in the Valérian sense, Wilson’s colors have the power to stun the language center into silence—only there’s no forgetting involved. It’s a matter, rather, of being confronted with hues you’ve never quite had the words for. This show of work made in 2002 and 2003 provides one tip-of-the-tongue frustration after another, until finally you let go of the attempt at a verbal taxonomy and succumb to a pleased, perplexed mental fog. The spectrum of Three Weeks is complex, murky, and impure, its tones the result of untold layers of translucent color. Each painting is vignetted with darker pigment, as if worked in from the sides with a blowtorch. Shockingly contrary hues jolt from the blackness at the edges of the picture plane. The canvas angles around the corners of the stretcher, taking with it a raised skin of paint, which stops abruptly in a razor-sharp edge on the stretcher’s sides, suggesting that the image could be peeled from its support like a decal.

Wilson claims to have only recently identified the influence of smog on his palette, but one wonders if it hasn’t always played a role in the tradition that has shaped him. By 1957, visible air pollution was a reliable enough local feature that tourists could buy cans of “Genuine Los Angeles Smog” as gag souvenirs. I’d guess that an aesthetic appreciation of L.A.’s defining glaze of man-made weather crept into the layered commercial finishes—originally applied to the cars, guitars, and surfboards that became icons of the regional love of leisure—that in turn inspired the finish-fetish movement of the ’60s. Hard and even in the work of plank master John McCracken and ceramicist Ken Price, the finishes that defined the L.A. Look modulated into softness in the pivotal wall pieces made by Irwin and Craig Kauffman from 1966 to 1968.

A segue from finish fetish to Light and Space, Irwin’s translucent discs and Kauffman’s vacuum-molded Plexiglas bubbles were sculptures that invoked the atmospherics of painting. Spray-painted (from the rear in the case of Kauffman, from the front in that of Irwin) so that thin, formed sheets of transparent materials were imbued with color and a nebulous sense of depth, they fused looking at and looking through into a single irreducible perception.

Drawing on Irwin’s and Kauffman’s technique while remaining resolutely on this side of the painting-sculpture divide, Wilson’s deep-stretchered canvases combine disorientingly unplaceable atmospheric fields with tiny, abstract geometric elements and recognizable objects from his visual archive. In 1:00 P.M., a stacked triptych that represents the other main format used by Wilson in the show, thickly painted gray-white and scarlet pinstripes, pushed toward the margins, climb the surface of the burnished gray-white fields. In the lower right corner of the bottom canvas, a metallic gray rectangle also lies on the surface, overlapped by a thick white square. To their right, another small rectangle is trapped somewhere within the painting, submerged beneath layers of alkyd and oil. Farther to the right is a similarly obscured hard-edge rendering of a dumpster.

Each of Wilson’s paintings, whether on canvas or paper, features at least one shadowy rendering of a real-world design artifact. The items represented fall into two main categories: the name-brand modernist (a Grand Confort armchair by Corbusier, a “potato chip” chair and a storage unit by Charles and Ray Eames, a Neutra house) and the no-name industrial/infrastructural (a cinder-block wall, a strip-mall sign, a telephone pole, lampposts, a traffic light, a sidewalk power box, and Wilson’s most frequent motif of this type, dumpsters).

To view Wilson through a luminist lens—and one senses that it is his debt to mid-19th-century American painting that made him take late-’60s Kauffman and Irwin back to the canvas—the hard-edge squibs are more anthropomorphic than abstract, and the dumpsters are haystacks. In the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade, haystacks, fully integrated into the landscape, serenely insinuate the harmonious human presence—better, in fact, than do the actual people scurrying about. And just as luminist time seems both specific and without incident, Wilson uses his titles (3:00 A.M., Thursday, 5:00 P.M., etc.) to locate his paintings placidly amid his own experience in a way that can seem somewhat arbitrary.

Luminism was about the embrace of human endeavor by the gracious, eternal light of the infinite: Storms may brew, but they will soon pass into the afterglow. A pantheism both nationalistic and Christian was made visible as a sun-raked rightness with the natural world.

In at least one significant way, Wilson breaks with the luminist model. Although his paintings concern themselves with locating Americans’ place in the sun, his light doesn’t indicate any faith—and doesn’t miss it, either. Thanks to the Californian example, we’ve grown comfortable with the idea of a sublime that has absolutely nothing backing it up. To the artistic inheritors of surfer Zen, blissed but not blessed, absence does not imply discontent. Wilson works our every perfect, blank perception to a seamless sunburst finish. CP