PALACETE VISCONDES DE BALSAMAO
PORTO, PORTUGAL | OCTOBER 18 – NOVEMBER 5, 2010
How to make an image but still construct a painting is the question that John Wilkins has repeatedly tried to solve over the years. Unless you’re familiar with London painting at the end of the last century, it is unlikely that you know Wilkins’s work. Since then he has only exhibited sporadically. His work first came to light in the ’80 with a group of large-scale, black and white watercolors called “Ovaltinies.” The name and imagery comes from the Ovaltine can, a powdered chocolate milk drink with a milkmaid as its logo. The paintings were created by allowing murky pools of watercolor to evaporate flat on the floor, thus growing the image through a patchwork of stain-like marks, a method that he has repeated in variation throughout his career.
His next big shift was inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s detachment and approach to painting as a codified visual language. Wilkins decided that Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots were nearly the smallest component of a visual language, which, for him, could be further reduced through representing molecules of paint. The result was bendy, lozenge-like shapes, which he called “sausages,” painted on water-stained fields of gray acrylic. Perhaps they were a Pop re-presentation of Duchamp’s “infra-mince,” or a cheeky misreading of Derridean deconstruction. Like Lichtenstein, these basic shapes provided Wilkins with a language to play on genres or themes (e.g., snowy landscapes, portraits, still lifes) with the resulting eccentric paintings threading a fine line between Pop and abstraction.
In Porto, he has created his first group of works on paper since the “Ovaltinies.” This time, the imagery is drawn from a children’s book, Buffalo Bill; all 10 paintings are of cacti, save one, a cactus’s shadow. Unlike much of his recent work, this comes close to representation, yet pushes the beholder away with strange background effects and colors. As in all his work, the main image is the result of using a stencil or projection, while the ground is created horizontally—in this case with an electric sander grinding raw pigment mixed with a medium onto paper. The result resembles a tie-dye effect with strange, hazy colors suggesting wild solar activity. The chalky ground represents the desert itself. Like some of his “sausage paintings,” these cacti, in three-quarter view, have an almost anthropomorphic quality. Again, as in his previous work, it is the ground that provides a rationale, or space, for the image. Perhaps they are intended to suggest isolation, or hint at the singularity of the individual—a very Wild West idea. Certainly the hazy ground recalls an apocalyptic atmosphere.
Wilkins regards himself as part of the ’80s New Image generation and, like many of them, his art uses appropriated imagery; although, given the eccentric nature of his output, Chicago’s Hairy Who might be a better point of reference. If David Salle was concerned with an inauthenticity that itself could be authentic (Thomas Lawson), Wilkins’s authenticity lies in his drive to make pictures, and yet be detached, to create an image within a painterly structure that estranges. He achieves this with a process that involves stenciling (a system that is indirect) on a ground that is created almost by chance, with images that usually play on genre. Unlike the Pictures generation, Wilkins’s concerns are very British in his consideration of picture-making as a craft. However, he has added very American notions of materiality. The result is a painstaking process balancing subject and material, image and ground. In the end, these cacti appear to make up Wilkins’s strangest exhibition yet.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.