“Lost” (1990), the earliest work included in Laura Sharp Wilson’s retrospective of 25 paintings and small, mixed-media sculptures, clearly shows the artist’s roots in textile design. One can easily imagine this layered pattern as a four-part silkscreen, printed on fabric rather than painted in oil on canvas, for use as wall covering, upholstery, or even sewn into a dress. But something isn’t quite right. First, there’s the overall acid green cast. Then the repeated, vertical silhouettes of trees appear not in a landscape, but floating, roots and all, free of soil or leaves, interwoven with flowing horizontal lines that suggest water. Coming further forward, closest to the surface, float shapes resembling bare branches, their ends like antlers. Paradoxically, the closest shapes come off as cut-outs that slice all the way through from front to background, while the water-like horizontals weave through, first behind and then before the trees. Such natural elements often serve purely ornamental roles, but nothing here is mere decoration. Subjects and their treatments convey an ominous feeling, and their three-dimensional weave stitches nature together, recalling that mortality is the thing that unifies life and gives it meaning. ‘Lost‘ is an ambiguous term here, referring either to death or to the experience of disconnecting from that which provides our bearings and orients us in the world: an experience that is emotionally evoked by what at first seemed an abstract pattern.
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It would be wrong to give the impression that Wilson’s art is as dark as that suggests. Viewing mortality as the thing that gives life definition is very different from presenting death as the great destroyer that blasts all meaning and purpose. In fact, as she gradually uncovers her essential subject and invents a metaphorical language capable of conveying its complexity, Wilson’s images unleash her playfulness. “Bound Carly” (1996), nude but for her restraints, raises the question whether the author of ‘You’re So Vain’ had looked in a mirror before leveling her criticism. Or, seen another way, perhaps it suggests that trapped in the bonds of her character, attached to her surroundings by the web of her ambition (songs, soundtracks, children’s books, concerts, not to mention marriage and children), she may have been happiest when the demands on her were greatest. There are no sharp moral judgments imposed here. A scalpel might cut through these vast tangles the way Philip the Great’s sword undid the Gordian Knot, but to do so would be to cheat reality the way the Macedonian cheated at the famous test. Unlike popular philosophers and TV pundits, Wilson isn’t trying to find the shortest distance between a pet cause and an alleged effect. She wants to capture the whole, complicated warp and weft of what’s really going down. And history—recent history in particular—is on her side.
Consider the ‘Net. Most of us are struggling to keep up with a host of changes in how our lives are organized: networks and networking, hyperlinks, social media where there used to be society here and media there. Instead of words on a page, many of today’s digital natives prefer pictures. It could all seem unprecedented, were it not for the Incas, who when they weren’t busy working on their calendars sent messages to each other in the form of brightly colored string tied in coded knots, knitted sculptural images, and wove pictures from yarn. Then there were the Maya, whose pictographic language was finally penetrated by linguistic scientists when they realized that the images that stood for sounds could be manipulated like any other pictures, so that a face could have a big nose or a small nose and still call to mind the same idea. Meanwhile, physicists may finally be closing in on one great, universal mystery: how is it possible, in a universe where nothing can travel faster than light, for gravity to attract everything everywhere to everything else instantaneously. When they get it, don’t be surprised if space resembles the elaborate webs that connect and hold in place Wilson’s patterned universe of interconnected patterns.
All this suggests a distinction between the richly patterned, colorful beads and beings that populate these constellations of connection and the bonds-made-visible that fill the space between them. Not so: beads on a string or patterned objects caught in knotted nets may suggest objects and forces, but in the perceiving mind, in the world of thought, forces are just as much objects and objects are equally forceful. Laura Sharp Wilson renders visible a world we ordinarily only feel, and obviously has a good time doing so. For the rest of the month, the matching pleasure unraveling her colorful, playful maps of the things unseen, but not unknown, will be on tap at House Gallery.
Laura Sharp Wilson: Full Steam Ahead
March 6- March 31
Artist Reception: March 16, 2012 6- 9 pm
29 East 400 South
Salt Lake City, UT 84111
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.