Stay up to date on D.C. with our free newsletters
“William T. Wiley: What’s Missing”
“Jacob Kainen: Recent Drawings”
“Willem de Looper: Paintings”
“Glen Goldberg: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper”
Few works exploring the difficulty of living with integrity are as much fun as William Wiley’s. His images unite the heart and mind with a constantly transforming mixture of humor and insight. Wiley’s work, currently on display in “What’s Missing” at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, offers surprises and contradictions at every turn.
Near the right edge of one of Wiley’s new images, the artist has pencilled, with typical irreverence, “Pimples don’t look too good on medeavil Runna-sauce angel.” Above and to the left of this insight, a smooth-faced, fair-haired celestial ruefully surveys a defiantly complex assembly of image, text, and decoration. Thus does the California artist summarize postmodern assessments of the problems and possibilities of textual and artistic creation with an offhand aside. Wiley references myths, religion, politics, art history, et al., overlaying personal commentary that can set up a whole image for reconsideration or simply illuminate a single segment of it.
Wiley has chosen the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder as the patron of his current show—a fitting choice, for the Fleming and the Californian have a similar world view. Neither has any illusions about the frailties that make human history such a discouraging narrative, but both appreciate the sensual pleasures and natural beauty that provide the compensation for our imperfect state. Recognizable quotations from Bruegel’s Mad Meg and Parable of the Blind appear in exquisitely painted Wiley works with similar titles. A head and a landscape detail from Bruegel’s Wedding Feast are isolated in Wiley’s Angel Piping Slow Chanter for the Glen and Glade and Jay Vanderlip—a horizontal image in which head and greenery are presented with almost pure coloristic effect. Details from Parable of the Blind also occur in several works in the show.
It’s appropriate, too, that Wiley has selected Bruegel’s allegorical works as sources. The artist notes that the nuclear accident at Chernobyl was one of the inspirations for the work in “What’s Missing,” yet one of Wiley’s greatest skills is the subtlety with which he integrates moralizing into his whimsically encyclopedic catalogs of ideas, images, and symbols. In the three Bruegel-derived paintings in this show, Wiley’s textual and decorative additions are kept to a minimum, and viewers are permitted almost unmediated contemplation of his representations of Bruegel’s paintings. In the show’s other works, however, Wiley’s unrestrained allusiveness is at its customarily intense level.
This allusiveness is most conspicuous in Near the Heart of the Monster, a mysterious and funny mixed- media piece reminiscent of earlier Wiley works that almost seem to delineate the vibrations of magic. Phrases like “Lectures on the History of Stuff,” “Its Ras Pew Ton at K-Mart,” and “Sum Say the Heart Is Just Like a Wheel,” distributed over the image surface, tantalizingly offer hope of interpretation. But Wiley is too shrewd to provide any easy answers. Instead, he incorporates sentiments like “War is bad so why do we keep on doing it?” into his work, suggesting that humanity already knows what’s important and chooses to ignore it.
Wiley’s invocation of Bruegel (in whom he says he’s been interested for years) is particularly satisfying because of the chance it offers to see the 16th-century artist’s narrative impulse applied to the contemporary world. Bruegel’s acceptance of and affection for what he saw as the unchangeable and unattractive realities of the human condition have always had considerable democratic appeal. Likewise, Wiley’s acne-free “Runna-sauce angel” proposes a modern vision that sees the spinach between the teeth of the bejeweled socialite at a gallery opening and loves both the spinach and the jewels—as well as the fascinating cultural spectacle of which we all are part.
While Wiley’s work reinvigor ates the realistic tradition of the Renaissance, that tradition’s better-known idealistic counterpart endures in the work of many nonobjective painters. Most abstractionists subject their narrative and descriptive impulses to a variety of analytical actions that elevate the forms and subjects of their paintings to the realm of the ideal—such formal considerations are analogous to the Italian Renaissance artist’s obsession with anatomy and perspective. This propensity is particularly apparent in the work of Jacob Kainen and Willem de Looper, whose new paintings and drawings are currently on view, respectively, at the Nancy Drysdale and Troyer Fitzpatrick Lassman Galleries.
Kainen’s exuberant gesture drawings have a strong sense of narrative that hovers on the periphery of definition. Simultaneously creating the impression of dancers and East Asian calligraphy, his works are vaguely reminiscent of those of the abstract expressionist masters—particularly Jackson Pollock and David Smith. Though they possess all the liveliness of modern expressionism, some of Kainen’s works have an almost severe sense of analytical placement, as if they are diagramming the compositional logic of a classical history painting. Yet they exhibit the dynamism typical of many modern abstract works, and lack abstract expressionism’s sinister totemism.
In contrast, de Looper’s works favor color and placement over gesture. Nonetheless, his saturated color fields and allusive color harmonies strongly hint at stories. The intensity of the works’ color and the evident consideration accorded its juxtaposition raise the decorative to the status of an ideal. Gesture is present in de Looper’s works, of course, but it is used to establish contrasts and relationships. His narratives are investigations of spatial interactions but, like Kainen’s, they are nonspecific. This tendency toward ambiguity is confirmed by the report that, pressed for names for this series of untitled works, the artist provided a list of titles to be applied as the dealers chose.
Another abstract approach to the ideal is offered by the work of Glen Goldberg and David Carlson: Both artists use sets of repeated gestures and patterns to describe experiences, attitudes, and entities. The painters—Goldberg’s work is currently on view at the Addison Ripley Gallery and Carlson’s at the Anton Gallery—are reluctant to interpret their works directly. Goldberg has been quoted as saying that he’s working toward something “larger than the self” and Carlson speaks of “energy” without detailing how his images manifest it. These works achieve the goal, important to the younger generation of painters, of referring to things obliquely and with a gestural modesty that borders on the anonymous. On one hand, they seem to operate at the opposite extreme from Wiley’s encyclopedic vision. On the other, their disciplined restraint on the formal level creates a surprisingly wide allusive range.
Many of the paintings in Goldberg’s show are constructed around an appealing form that he calls a “Whirly” (it looks like an awkward flower, a soft-edged star, or a Ferris wheel). Its ambiguity gives the works much of their interest, for when he uses a more overt geometric shape the effect is less satisfying. The forms are usually off-center, so that the image seems a partial view of a larger situation. This impression is enhanced by irregular grids of paint pats and tiny lines that read as dots from a distance; they disrupt the surface and call attention to it as well. The effect is a little too concrete to be considered hallucinatory, but these are mesmerizing, compelling images even so.
Carlson’s vocabulary is more extensive, but he often achieves a similar effect. Pats of paint, small beads of pigment, and latticed patterns composed of repeated tiny marks are assembled into a variety of shapes—squares, ellipses, ovals, circles, and sinuous bands that offer considerable compositional variety. Like Goldberg’s Whirlys, their power derives from their restraint. Unlike the Whirlys, Carlson’s forms have extensive spatial potential, but their notion of space seems to go inward to the nature of things rather than outward to define location. The most successful works are those whose patterns imply an interchange of energy and that appear to be held together by the painting itself.