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I don’t think Margaret Wharton (1943-2014) and Issy Wood thought much about Jasper Johns when they were in their separate studios. But I do think one way to see their works is through the lens of Johns’s well-known credo: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
Although Wharton was a sculptor based in Chicago, who first gained attention in the mid-1970s with her debut show at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, and Wood is a painter who was born in 1993, grew up in London, and began exhibiting in 2017, their pairing in Margaret Wharton and Issy Wood: I came as soon as I heard at JTT was interesting for the paths of conjecture their work led me down.
The first link I saw between these artists, and the one that catapulted me into a speculative realm, was their preoccupation with a handful of objects. Wharton’s chosen object was a wooden chair. Taking apart and reconstructing them, she transformed familiar inanimate objects into fetish-like figures and iconic presences. To some, she added clothespins, tacks, or books, which further transformed the chair without losing its identity. Issy Wood uses reproductions from auction catalogs, as well as images of false teeth, hair, and leather jackets and pants as starting points. Both her additions of other images and her claustrophobic, fixated viewpoints make her paintings mysterious and unsettling.
Preoccupied with the power associated with fetishes and talismans, Wharton and Wood get at something affecting many of us — that we are overly attentive to various things in our lives, such as clothes and appearances. In the sculpture “Bipolar” (2011), Wharton turns a chair (a three-dimensional object) into a largely flat abstract figure hung on the wall. Two legs of the chair become the figure’s legs; the seat represents the body; and the chair’s back can be read as neck, head, and arms. Wharton does not stop there, however; she has carefully inset dozens of compasses into the figure’s flat wooden body. On a shelf nearby is a wand-like magnet with a handle. If you pass the magnet over the surface, as I did, the needles in the compasses begin to flutter and spin. The effect is eerie, as if the compasses are nerves that have suddenly been activated, moving even though the figure does not.
The tension between the unmoving figure and the compasses, their needles wavering, is unsettling. Are we trying to bring a dead object (a sculpture) back to life by passing a wand over it? Is this what viewers do when they look at figural sculpture? Have we lost all sense of direction so that no compass can help us? It is like a fetish object whose purpose is lost to us.
In “Winter” (2011), the chair becomes a figure with eyes. Clothespins encircle the head, becoming a headdress. Tacks are pushed into the body, creating an armored skin. The chair’s distressed wood conveys the passage of time. The sculpture has a history that has been lost to us, yet Wharton’s attention to details imbues the work with a sense of its animistic power. We can only guess at the nature of its power.
A number of Issy Wood’s paintings are smudged, moody, cropped depictions of uncanny juxtapositions, such as a set of plastic, fanged vampire teeth sitting atop a black clock face with the date “13.” What is the relationship between fiction (vampires), superstition (number 13), time (clock), and the meaning we assign to colors (black)? Like Wharton, Wood does not purport to have the answer. Rather, she recognizes that we are all guided by different sets of beliefs, some irrational.
In “Car Interior/For Once” (2019), viewers encounter a cropped, angled view of a car’s front seats, with only the driver’s seat completely visible. The car’s interior is black leather, with yellow and brown plaid on the seat padding and the car’s doors, yet the left front seat’s upright cushion contains the image of five-petal white flowers with a yellow center. Why is this image only on the left seat? Is the white meant as a symbol of purity?
In “I scream you scream ” (2019), which most likely was derived from an auction catalogue, Wood takes an erotic piece of Chinoiserie, portraying two women entwined on a bed, and arrives at a smudgy, largely gray rendering with a black and yellow leopard-skin highlight. The gray distances us from the sexual heat of the image, muting our gaze. A tension arises in the collision of a grisaille palette highlighted by the leopard-skin pattern — the most electric part of the painting — and the women’s languid encounter. Puffy, cloud-like shapes pass behind the women, but in front of the leopard skin, inexplicably altering the view. Does Wood mean to evoke the smoke from an opium pipe? If so, who is looking at the image and why?
At her best, Wood’s paintings are enigmatic. The cropped views impart a claustrophobic feeling. We are close to something. Do we wish to get even closer or to pull back and gain an emotional distance from what we are looking at? This is the tension Wood arrives at in many of her works. We are simultaneously fascinated and disturbed. We know what we are looking at — a cropped leather jacket painted different hues of blue — but do we want to know more?
Wharton and Wood are both open to the irrational currents flowing through our lives. In their devotion to detail and their preternatural understanding that objects can exert a certain hold us, they touch upon our fixations, however odd and unsavory they might be.
Margaret Wharton and Issy Wood: I came as soon as I heard continues at JTT (191 Chrystie Street, Manhattan) through August 2.
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