Any exhibit of more than one artist has something in common with a double bill at the movie theater, including an implicit invitation to speculate about why these artists, or their gallery, chose to show these particular works together. In the case of Claire Wilson and Zack Pontious, sharing the fourth floor of the City Library through April 26, the reason is not immediately apparent. Searching the gallery, and ones own reactions, for the common qualities that connect them becomes a good way of beginning to see each artist more clearly.
Claire Wilson’s wall-mounted objects are cubical replicas of fragments of construction, resembling the sort of examples that might be found in a museum of technology, or in an extreme case in a memorial exhibit, like the one on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York, where bent steel columns are meant to show the violence of the events of 9/11. Most of Wilson’s examples feature juxtapositions of more than one surface treatment, the contrast between them recalling those between the various colored veils assembled by Mark Rothko, or even the overlapping color squares of Josef Albers (though it must be said Wilson’s rectangles are more fun than either). It’s as if Wilson’s project is to show that such collisions in space, central as they are to art’s great 20th century project, occur not just deliberately there, but everywhere among human artifacts.
Compared to these replicas, small for three-dimensional objects, Pontious’s images are large for works on paper. Also they are flat, and their illusions of depth, while quite vivid, are no deeper than surface textures. Where Wilson’s palette ranges from off-white to dark cement gray, highlighted by streaks of rust, Pontious’s ranges over a spectrum of what might be called earth colors. Finally, the illusions Wilson produces are limited to simulating materials — raw plaster, poured concrete, protruding nails, all in rectilinear grids, all utterly convincing — whereas Pontious depicts a world of wrinkles, folds, pleats, pours, and layering that are formally free, if sometimes carelessly joined, creating diagonal energies that flow, pause, and balance briefly like the abstract paintings they essentially are.
Yet even if their approaches to material representation are very different, both deliver a strong sense of the passage of time. Wilson’s wall fragments could have been revealed by remodeling of a building, such as the removal of an ornamental facade or the relocating of a floor, as is often done in historical buildings being repurposed. Pontious’s large squares could be satellite images of the earth’s mantle, or much smaller photos of chemical spills. If the former, they call into awareness the millions of years of geologic activity that created the mundane rock and soil conditions everywhere around us. If the latter, they suggest a potentially tragic contrast between a once-pristine landscape and what greed and disinterest have done to it.
In fact, in his statement Pontious directly connects his work to hydraulic fracturing, the controversial extraction technique that was recently proven to have caused the greatest earthquake in Oklahoma history. While his concern is genuine, nothing in the work suggests it, and even if a viewer chooses to read his statement—by no means required or to be counted on—the statement merely asserts that concern. This is one of the problems with art seeking to be labeled contemporary—the requirement for a social or political subject works against the nature of art. These elaborate and accomplished images—Photoshop, perhaps?—are beautiful and engaging, and one can imagine enjoying one on the wall, at least until their scant reference to the viewer’s own experience allows them to fade in the mind — better Pontious had found ways to bring the viewer inside the work, more emotionally involved. Meanwhile, Wilson’s material portraits go in the other direction, towards specificity, in ways that viewers who share the interest in materials may find perennially captivating. In the early twentieth century, an artist might have given such works titles borrowed from, say, mythology or antique poetry, thereby giving their viewers something verbal to connect to their abstract patterns. They had a point.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.