The ten paintings by Sam Wilson currently showing at the 15th Street Gallery all appear to have been made in the last five or six years. The dates are worth noting, because although Wilson has an unusually distinctive style of painting, one that seems as timeless as it is instantly recognizable, in fact he constantly responds to events, both in his life and in the world at large, and his style evolves over time. A new Sam Wilson isn’t just the most recent example of the same thing, like a comedian’s latest joke or a hack writer’s newest story. While the qualities that bring his fans coming back are still here —the wit, the gentle teasing of art’s academic side, the superb drawing, the dynamic balance between realistic and ornamental color placement, and the list goes on — every new outing by this perennial favorite is cause for rejoicing, as well as for heading straight to the lucky venue that gets to show it off.
The characteristics of recent Wilsons begin with the paint, itself. In place of the oils he once used, Wilson has been layering a mixture of media, including pencil or chalk over charcoal fixed with acrylic, resulting in a surface that reproduces the distinctive texture and palette of watercolor on plaster — the buon fresco so ubiquitous in the acres of painted images that cover the walls of Italian churches and palaces.|2| Overlooked by the masterpiece-seeker, these murals are the delight of attentive viewers. Those who suspect Wilson of copying those renaissance originals may be interested to know that he freely invents most of what look like copies, relying on his deep feeling for the era’s characteristics. In fact, while the homage in his painting is genuine, a specialist would argue that the look of his panels is a far cry from what actually remains on the walls of Florence and Siena. It’s not just that it’s flat, deliberately lacking the rounded and weighty masses that enthralled the followers of Giotto and Masaccio. The silhouetting of heads, bodies, and objects is often accomplished by the literal use of silhouettes, cut-out bits of board that are stacked atop a base panel in an array that owes everything to the collage and assemblage techniques of modern art. Then there are the details: medieval painters cluttered their scenes with symbolic objects, while renaissance painters were more likely to set monumental figures in architectonic settings, like actors on a stage where every detail served the perspective. Here again, Wilson paints like his 20th and 21st century contemporaries, creating dense, abstract-like visual patterns, where on closer looking odd and paradoxical bits can be found lurking.|3| OK, someone painting for the Medicis might have thrown in a bird — an owl, say, symbol of wisdom — but to include the dentures Wilson likes to slip in would probably have cost him his life.|4|
One of Wilson’s favorite devices recalls a byzantine trope that survived into the renaissance. Often called a ‘head cloud,’ it can be seen anywhere a group of bystanders collects, often behind or to one side of the main action. Essentially, the bodies of the foremost figures are surmounted by an oval area of overlapping heads, most of whose implied bodies are out of sight. In “Adam And Eve, A Frieze With Heart,” Wilson scatters a few bodies, primarily those of the figures on the ends of the cloud —the one on the right prays like a donor figure, while the one of the left strikes a more judicious pose — while most of the heads are free-floating.|5| This allows the painting to wander in and out of realistic mode, while the artist gets to concentrate on his favorite subjects. The heads cover a range of historical styles, extending from the Quattrocento down to today. They also exhibit a variety of display modes, including the displaced and emphasized jaw and adjacent muscular analysis of the white-haired gentleman next to the praying hands. In the center, color bars, a device used to teach beginning artists but also used by professionals as samples, form a paradoxical space like a small house, wherein dwells the anatomically-correct heart. The various frames, meanwhile, take a lesson from Toulouse-Lautrec and slip in and out of space freely. For viewers who never recovered from traumatic exposure to the academic tendency to look for a reason for everything, a coded meaning or a veiled reference, this is like the way a doctor treats allergies — strong exposure meant to cause that reaction to break down. The various bits of visual information the artist has arranged in two- and three-dimensional space are meant to produce a lively response, but not a specific one. No artist gets to dictate what an artwork means, or even what it suggests to others. The achievement of good art is that it continues to surprise viewers. Since there is no single, correct reading of one of Sam Wilson’s collections, that seems likely to go on happening.
Of course there are real, specific references to be found in these works. Anyone who has spent time with them has probably learned to recognize the artist’s self-portrayal, often in comedic disguise, often depicted as a reacting witness.|6| Then there are the texts, sometimes written on the painting itself, at other times framed alongside or placed on the title card. Some are extensive, some brief and enigmatic, others appearing in Latin or Italian. While it would be an error to dismiss such touches as irrelevant, they shouldn’t be weighted any more heavily than the occasional choice of famous faces among the anonymous crowd. Wilson has said that his Latin is collaged together from phrases in the appendix of his dictionary, and it makes sense that a man who considers everything he sees grist for his mill would include words and their various incarnations as equally valid subjects, if perhaps less challenging and fulfilling to draw.|1|
At its best, art is play. Hard work, of course, but play in the sense that a work of art, simulacrum or not, is never a real thing: it’s a game in which artist and audience conspire. Wilson is among the best at it, and he has said that in his work he seeks intuition and instinct — two qualities that tend to get squeezed out when specific goals, purposes, or meanings are attempted. It’s enough to know that Sam Wilson’s choices are personal, and that the intimate self-revelation he risks justify his sleights-of-hand, his covering implication of secret meanings. For the viewer, it can be just as personal. There is no hidden message: the proper subject of art is the pleasure to be found in it, shared openly by all.
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Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.