Jim Weidle is an observational painter whose works brought to my mind that of two completely different, singular artists: Catherine Murphy and Milton Resnick. What Weidle shares with this unlikely pairing is a preoccupation with materiality, the feel and texture of things in Murphy’s smooth surfaces, and the muted light issuing from gobs of gooey oil paint in Resnick’s labor-intensive impastos. Yet these comparisons disappeared almost as quickly as they popped up, leaving me pondering Weidle’s captivating paintings of mundane subjects, such as a gravel yard or leaf-strewn forest floor in late autumn.
Weidle was the subject of two shows at Fischbach Gallery in the mid-1980s, but since then he’s had only two solo shows in New York, and I was unfamiliar with his work until seeing his current show, Jim Weidle: PAINT – Apply Now!, at Blue Mountain Gallery (October 4–29, 2022).
The exhibition’s ironic title underscores the pressures of professionalization in today’s celebrity-conscious art market. Weidle also seems to be mocking himself, partly, I think, because of his subjects. But I see his banal subject matter, with its limited tonal palette (often gritty grays or dirty greens), differently. That’s why I lingered at his exhibition.
I found a number of the show’s 19 works mesmerizing for various unlikely reasons. In a letter to his brother, Mark Twain described the detail-packed deep space of Frederic Edwin Church’s panoramic painting “Heart of the Andes” (1859): “… the most distant — the minutest object in it has a marked and distinct personality — so that you may count the very leaves on the trees.” Church wanted to depict every zone of weather, from the tropical forest to the ice-covered mountains. Weidle is equally interested in getting everything into his work. “Big Woods” portrays a ground littered with leaves, branches, and rocks, between two cropped tree trunks. It is one of those unassuming views most of us rarely stop to consider in real life.
As an artist who paints landscapes, Weidle’s rejection of the picturesque, merged with his sensitivity to tone and penchant for accurate description, sets a very high bar. And yet, as formally masterful and sensitive to nuance as he is in depicting countless ordinary shapes, a lot more seems to be happening in these paintings. If an archetypal “American” painting style began in the mid-19th century, with the Hudson River School, and the celebration of the unspoiled American landscape, then artists such as Rackstraw Downes, Stanley Lewis, Cindy Tower, and Jim Weidle show what happened to that landscape after it was annexed by waves of optimism mixed with arrogance and greed. While Downes, Lewis, and Tower paint complex, beautiful paintings of ugly or abandoned rubbish-filled factories, and rural life’s weedy disorder, Weidle turns his attention to littered grounds, dense forest growth, and gravel yards. It seems as if we are stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Weidle’s “Judgment of Paris” (2022) depicts three white plastic buckets, two of which are filled with gravel, within a field of gravel. Despite its reference to a Greek myth that encompasses a beauty contest and the origins of war, by some social standards beauty is nowhere to be found. Is Weidle comparing art to a beauty contest of some kind? Whatever his intention, the link is both provocative and opaque.
The shadow extending in from the painting’s left side suggests a world beyond its physical parameters — something true of most of Weidle’s work. What we see is a partial glimpse of a modest but intricate material world. Looking at these paintings, and then returning to them, I was struck by their perfect mixture of beauty and dread. There is nothing appealing about gravel, but there I was, engaged by it. In his paintings of ground cover and gravel, Weidle touches on the despair that has replaced optimism in the United States, the sense that the future is bleak and that chaos and constant anger are now acceptable.
This does not define Weidle’s works in the exhibition, but that sense of despair did leak into many of them. In “Vinyl Triptych” (each painting measures 24 by 36 inches), the viewer looks down into large storage bins filled with vinyl records. Three record covers are shown: Roger Williams’s Near You, Burl Ives’s Funny Way of Laughing, and Mitch Miller & the Gang’s Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch. Is someone selling the records at a flea market? Have adults found them while cleaning out the home of their deceased parents? Do they signify a nostalgic longing for an imaginary America that never existed?
The longer I looked at “Vinyl Triptych,” the less sure I was about the answer. Could it be about the romance, humor, and holiday cheerfulness the records celebrate? Or are the contrived celebrations and songs professing to represent our inchoate feelings masking a sense of emptiness? This is the real strength of the exhibition’s best works: the ambiguities resist any reductive reading and keep us looking.
Jim Weidle: PAINT – Apply Now! continues at Blue Mountain Gallery (547 West 27th Street Suite 200, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
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