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Irresistibly baffling, Laura Sharp Wilson’s paintings ensnare us inside a post-industrial jungle of tangled cables and serpentine vines, blinding yellow days and blacker than black nights. Her crisply articulated forms thrust, loop, spiral, dangle, cluster, zigzag, and coil edge-to-edge with a singular clarity that sidesteps chaos for a state of wide-eyed delirium
The freshness of Wilson’s high-contrast imagery is derived in part from her mix of materials: acrylic and graphite on Unryu, mulberry or silk paper, which she applies to wood panels — at times painting the verso of the translucent sheet to achieve a distancing effect, or pasting in a cutout shape to bump out the painting’s surface, or leaving an area blank so that the wood panel beneath supplies a tone to the paper.
This is Wilson’s fourth solo show at McKenzie Fine Art. The gallery press release mentions that the artist’s influences range from “18th-century Indian bed-curtains and the Constructivist textile designs of Varvara Stepanova to the work of Keith Haring, Yayoi Kusama, and Chris Ofili.” Her paintings also bring to mind the extravagant decadence of fin de siècle Vienna, the crystalline colors of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the late figuration of Philip Guston and the Pop abstraction of Nicholas Krushenick.
The last of these associations, Krushenick, holds the key to what is so formally unsettling about Wilson’s work. Krushenick, whose boldly colored paintings applied the vernacular vocabulary of Pop to the planar space of Synthetic Cubism, offered an original take on abstraction. He can also be considered Wilson’s closest aesthetic relative, except for one crucial difference.
Despite his departure from conventional perceptions of both Pop and abstraction, Krushenick still framed his work within a modernist paradigm of straight lines, simple curves, flat shapes and compressed space. While Wilson’s paintings share Krushenick’s shallow, Cubist space, her profusion of forms, which imitate the behavior of their real-world counterparts (stems, vines, leaves, cables, fences, etc.), do not combine abstraction and Pop — two systems of signs at an equal remove from visual reality — but abstraction and a specific range of verisimilitude that includes technical drawing and scientific illustration. It’s a squirmy fit. The images are almost recognizable, populating a clearly defined pictorial space, but in their foreignness they ultimately create their own alternate universe, a dimension we may decide not to accept.
Looked at a certain way, Wilson’s work pulls in not merely the formal inheritance of such precedents as Viennese Expressionism and Japanese prints, but also the peculiarities of their content — the tumid sensuality of Gustav Klimt and the florid weirdness of Utagawa Kuniyoshi — the kinds of things we might disregard, or prefer to avoid, as we zero in on form, pattern, texture, color and line.
Wilson’s graphic fluency and absurdist sense of humor (one piece features typewriter keys floating like water lilies, another pairs two gramophone horns blasting particles at each other) recall the 1970s paintings of Philip Guston, whose figural motifs flowed with a prolificacy and naturalness verging on the speed of thought. There’s an element of the doodle in both, a sense of the artist developing offhand scribbles into quirkily substantive forms.
But what is most striking about Wilson’s paintings is their relentlessness — their moments of beauty that come at you one after another after another in a single work, sending your eyes darting everywhere at once: the black silhouette against a sunflower-yellow field in “1996” (2014), almost obscured behind the red, green, blue, violet and pale chartreuse shapes dancing across the surface; the luminous hues of gray, pink and blue against a black sky in the starkly vertical “Laced Tower” (2014); the pearlescent, penumbral tones and bald geometry of “Tank” (2013).
These images overflow with unabashed sumptuousness, their straight-ahead graphic punch swapping out Pop’s irony to underscore its immediacy. The clean colors, acute contrasts and sharp contours lay claim to comic books’ borrowings from Expressionist and Japanese art, rechanneling them into painting without stumbling into high seriousness.
Wilson’s cybernetic life forms, swarming above, behind, across and through one another, resolve into a bristling complexity, a social and technological phenomenon perpetually unfolding beyond our reach. The entangled forms, pressing themselves against the picture plane, manage to connect with each other, and the viewer, with unequivocal directness, but that does nothing to short-circuit their ambiguity. We’re left to wander the jungle without a map.
Laura Sharp Wilson continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 4.