Patrick Wilson and Susan Smith-Pinelo, Apr. 26-May 31, 2003, at Fusebox, 1412 14th Street N.W., Washington, D.C.
I enjoy looking at Patrick Wilson's paintings. They're colorful, they're accessible, they're easy -- and maybe that's why I enjoy the paintings without loving the artwork.
Wilson, 33, is a Los Angeles-based painter. His paintings, which look like canvases dipped in lacquer, are almost entirely about color. Here's how. Imagine a shallow pond with a bottom of orange silt. Imagine a red globule of paint falling into the pond. When the globule lands in the pond, it kicks up the orange silt, making the water cloudy with orange. Because the globule would infuse the water with redness, the two colors would mix in a murky suspension that would still be dominated by one color: orange. That's what Patrick Wilson does with alkyd and other paints on canvas. He makes color clouds.
These aren't Rothko-like color clouds. Rothko's clouds hover over backgrounds of other clouds and vibrate between the viewer and the canvas. A Wilson painting is one cloud, cut into a rectangle, holding still as you look at it. Wilson's fetish-finish surface and use of color is more reminiscent of a Richard Misrach sunset photograph than of a painting. In fact if it weren't for the little pits in the surface of Wilson's canvases made by air bubbles, you could believe that these are abstract photographs.
This mixture of hues in a suspension governed by a preponderant color is Wilson's signature. I enjoy looking at Wilson's paintings because of the color, and because of the way he paints. But this raises a key issue in Wilson's work. Great art rewards repeated viewings by revealing new pleasures to the viewer at each viewing. Wilson's paintings are easy to see. They don't require the viewer's eye to do much work.
That's not to say that there is nothing interesting to see or think about here. I wonder why the painted surface of Wilson's paintings wraps around the edges of his canvases to emerge about half-an-inch onto what would typically be the blank sides, tops and bottoms of the canvas. This has the effect of making the canvases look like pastries that have been carefully lowered into chocolate and then pulled out. I know that Wilson didn't dip these canvases in anything, that he probably taped off the edges and painted the surface and the sides. This interests me, but it is not formally interesting enough to occupy my thoughts for more than a viewing or two.
Wilson also hides some doo-dads in his paintings, but a viewer has to be willing to momentarily ignore Wilson's color field to find them. In the lower left or right corner of his triptychs, Wilson has slipped images of objects between his layers of alkyd and other paints. In the corner of one painting is an Eames storage unit, in others I found a snowman, garbage dumpster, a 1950s-style RV trailer, an Eames molded plywood chair and the trailer from an 18-wheeler. Cute, but not arresting.
Once you've found Wilson's Eames plywood chair or the little squares of paint at the bottom of his canvases, you've found all the subtle rewards of the painting. Wilson's paintings remind me a little bit of those Where's Waldo books: It's fun to look through the crowds and to look for Waldo. But once you've found Waldo, you can move on.
The five major works at Fusebox are actually installations of three vertically-stacked canvases, measuring 51 by 22 inches overall, which are offered for $8,000. A series of 21 canvases, titled "Three Weeks," consists of 21 panels measuring 15 by 36 inches. Individual works from this series sell for $3,600. Three works on paper are offered at $2,300 each.
* * *
Also at Fusebox is Susan Smith-Pinelo's latest video installation, the third and final part of her "Hiphopcrisy Series." The D.C.-based artist has become something of a contemporary art world darling in recent years thanks to her take on male-dominated hip-hop culture. Smith-Pinelo's video pieces have been featured at the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Walker Art Center, the Carnegie Museum and in this year's Corcoran Biennial. When it has come to art museums and pop culture, Smith-Pinelo has been a de rigueur inclusion.
Part III: The Hiphopcrisy Series is an eight-minute video loop of five shirtless young black men, standing in place, with their torsos framed by the camera, from just below their nipples to just below their crotches. (Part III is offered in an edition of five at $6,000 each.) The video is projected onto two facing walls so that the five young men are facing each other -- or each other's crotches.
The young man in the American flag boxers is the star of the piece. American Flag is the confident one, aggressively standing with one leg slightly in front of the other, his arms crossed just below his firm, curved pecs. He occasionally slaps one hand into the other and sometimes hitches his thumbs into his pockets. He's all attitude.
Behind him, a young man wearing University of North Carolina basketball shorts under his saggy pants is less sure of himself. UNC scratches his arms, shyly pulls up his pants, and twitches his arms. He has lots of lankiness and he has no idea how to be comfortable with it.
The young man on the far right, in white briefs that, of course, rise above the waist line of his jeans spends most of the video standing awkwardly, barely moving. He just crosses his arms. And on the far left, a guy in Tommy Hilfiger tries to move his hips, his arms, and his hands to a beat, but he mostly ends up looking fidgety.
At first glance, Part III shows us young men posing in the cool-guy manner of the day, fashionable underwear in your face, bare skin on display, shiny belts, rings and wristwatches bling-blinging away. Yeah, they're bad-ass. . . except that as you watch them you realize that only one of them has any semblance of self-confidence or presence. This isn't a male beefcake version of Smith-Pinelo's jiggy-woman, soft porn-influenced work. In Part III, Smith-Pinelo reveals that the men who feast on T&A hip-hop aren't such hot shit. The act is a veneer; the men are boys. They are exposed as vulnerable and the tables are turned. Remember all those near-naked women displayed music videos by male hip-hop stars? Smith-Pinelo is showing her five young men how it feels to be on display and they don't look comfortable with it.
The key question about Smith-Pinelo's art is an obvious one: In 40 years, when hip-hop is but a small part of the history of pop culture, how will her work look? My guess is that it will look temporal, of-its-time, and out-of-date. As temporal social commentary Smith-Pinelo's work succeeds. But ironically, for Smith Pinelo's videos to last as timeless works of art, the hip-hop style of exploitation that she criticizes in her work will have to be more than a momentary strain of pop culture.