In 1962 the world-famous architect Richard Meier built his first house in Lonelyville, a then-secluded, sand dune-covered area of Fire Island. The so-called “Lambert House” (made for his client Sol Lambert) is an ode to modernist aesthetics and to Meir’s idol, Le Corbusier. It’s here that artist Michael Wetzel grew up. In his show at Honey Ramka, Standards of Living, Wetzel composes an ode to the house Meier built.
Superficially it looks like Wetzel has made a mess by turning the front gallery into what looks like an in-progress construction site. He has the orange lights — designed by Jeffrey Tranchell — intentionally lowered, causing dramatic shadows in some places, so viewers are signaled that something is going on. But what is going on? It’s hard to tell. Some of the angular and geometric shadows, such as of a potted plant, seem interesting on their own. But surely the show is not about shadows? Or is it?
One has to assume that the two-by-four-foot boards nailed together in the front gallery represent doorways and incomplete walls, but unless one is in on the story, it’s unclear what the connection to the Lambert House is. Missing is Meir’s austere minimalism, his sleek surfaces, and sense of weightlessness — all things the Lambert House is known for.
The gallery attendant said the installation was about Wetzel’s memory of his old home. The thing is, that without some guidance, sometimes shows like this can come off as intimidating to viewers.
Ultimately, I’d like to think the installation is about Wetzel’s memory of his childhood home, littered as it is with fragmented references to his childhood. I’d also like to think the drama of the shadows is intentional and necessary, referencing memory and the past. But here too I am thwarted because there is a whole other aspect to the show — that of a kind of Surrealist-inspired arrangement of sculptural objects resembling the bits inside of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Wetzel has put lots of unrelated materials into a conversation that are maybe so personal they don’t make rational sense to anyone but the artist.
That said, there is one large, central sculpture obviously made with care and consideration; it resembles a sitting figure with the word “DITCH” on it. The implied head is a generous glob of plaster oozing off the top of a plank with clam shells pressed into it. The figure is crowned with a spindly sun shape casting its own complicated shadow behind itself that’s as interesting as the sculpture.
In the back room, Jessica Cannon’s Rapid Cycle displays a suite of dreamy landscapes that resonate with Wetzel’s surrealist aesthetic. Collectively, her smallish acrylic paintings feel like repeated attempts at capturing a dream as it slowly fades. In this way, both artists long for the cohesion of forms and meanings. Although many artists make work about their process, it can seem hard to follow. It helps viewers to understand the process better when it’s more focused in a direction, as Cannon has done in her show.
In most of her watercolor-like paintings the imagery is repeated; in each, there’s a moon, a tree, a fence, a rainbow, a ribbon, a wave, water, or some combination of them, and all of the elements are in layers, floating and unconnected.
Never mind the ifs, ands, or buts of her irrational landscapes — logic just doesn’t function in worlds made out of fragments. While Cannon is not making zombie formalist paintings per se, they still feel like a sentence randomly missing a subject, a noun or a verb. They aren’t, for example, about light or formlessness. They aren’t about color and they don’t appear to be about physical space. My guess is that they might be about language somehow, but it seems more likely they are about emotional space.
It’s tempting to analyze her pictures of fenced-in spaces surrounded by voids as psychological self-portraits with feelings of confinement and blocked passages — a kind of counterpoint to Wetzel’s wide-open and aimless spaces. Yet, instead of hiding such associations in pure abstraction or clutter (which a zombie formalist might do), her paintings use design to give the formal elements cohesion. Certainly a red moon means one thing in one painting and a yellow moon means something different in another? I’m reminded by the self-restraint that Georgia O’Keeffe used when she confined many of her compositions to a simple earth below and sky above, and then inserted any number of things: giant velvety flowers, animal skulls, buildings.
Cannon’s system seems to say much less, though. Her paintings make me think of doing meditation or yoga class when the instructor directs you to clear your mind and think of a peaceful space. So, next time I’m in class, I might think of a moon or a wave or a dappled sea, like in one of Jessica Cannon’s paintings.
What I liked most about the juxtaposition of Wetzel with Cannon is that both seem to be sifting through their feelings and are showing us what that process looks like. It’s a mistake to approach these works using logic and reason, looking for answers and meanings that aren’t there. Sometimes art, as in life, has no answers and you need to be okay with knowing that sometimes all those loose threads will never come together and sometimes that’s the whole point.