Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2008
Having developed his practice at the critical height of the Pictures Generation – a group of artists whose appropriative and largely photographic strategies fundamentally undermined the validity of painting in contemporary art – Wool set out to prove the critical agency of painting within a set of newly defined parameters. The influential critic, Douglas Crimp, had famously declared ‘The End of Painting’ in his eponymous essay of 1981; nevertheless, it was within this critical milieu that Wool pursued a trajectory that negated the expressive decision-making usually associated with the discipline. In the late 1980s, Wool began working with his hand at a remove from his paintings’ surfaces. Using wallpaper pattern rollers, rubber stamps and stencils, Wool created all-over compositions of readymade motifs, banal patterns, and ubiquitous words and phrases on immaculate white aluminium surfaces in thick enamel paint. Combining the process-oriented practices of late-Minimalism with a quotidian ‘borrowing’ from everyday life, Wool’s paintings deftly sidestepped the baggage of painterly expressivity; and yet, via the mistakes and chance slippages of his handmade-readymade method, Wool was able to maintain a sense of free-hand energy. The skips and slides of the paint roller, the visual noise at the edge of a rubber stamp, or the pooling of enamel paint underneath a stencil, imparted remarkably painterly passages of poetic spontaneity.
From this moment onwards, Wool’s oeuvre evolved through a cumulative progression of working and reworking. Following the rollers, stamps and stencils of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in 1993 Wool began applying the same motifs via silkscreen. By taking on Andy Warhol’s trademark method, Wool was afforded greater levels of mechanical mediation and control that nonetheless preserved the potential for dissonant slipups. The even effect of the silkscreen allowed the artist to apply layer-upon-layer of patternation that resulted in dense strata. While this sometimes resulted in compositional collapse, Wool’s cumulative layering would also throw up new forms and unexpected configurations. The push-pull of the destructive-creative impulse thus came to the fore in Wool’s work for the first time; as Brinson has explained, it was “only by sabotaging his own images”, that Wool could “find the freedom to generate new ones” (Katherine Brinson, ‘Trouble is my Business’, op. cit., p. 42). It was off the back of these hyper-automated works that Wool would begin to overturn his injunction against freehand mark making: in many of the early silkscreen on aluminium works, layers of broad linear Wite-Out brush-strokes and graffiti-esque spray-gunned loops mark the first appearance of Wool’s own hand. These compositional elements serve to redo and redact, whilst also divulging ghostly palimpsest-like effects via occlusion.
In 1998 the appropriative complexity of Wool’s compositions took on a markedly self-reflexive direction when he began to silkscreen images of his previous work. In the studio, Wool would use finished paintings and transfer their compositions onto photo-silkscreens; the subsequent ‘second generation’ paintings, created using silkscreen ink on linen, are characterised by a photographic flatness and loss of detail through heightened contrast, as well as the presence of new visual information in the guise of halftone printing dots. Following a chain of processes that began in the late-1980s with the rollers, rubber stamps and stencils on aluminium; through to Wool’s transposition of these motifs onto silkscreens that were then applied to aluminium in many layers through the mid-1990s; the tautological cyclicality of Wool’s cumulative process reached a fever pitch with the ‘next generation’ silkscreens on linen. In many of these works Wool would use enlarged motifs from previous works and/or overlay the silkscreen prints afresh with new brushstrokes or sprayed loops. The composite of hand-painted brushwork and printed silkscreen obfuscates both execution and origin, whilst simultaneously implying an act of vandalism that is compounded by the urban aesthetic of Wool’s spray-gunned loops. However it was not until 2000 that the concept of vandalism and erasure would take centre stage in Wool’s next major series: the Gray Paintings.
It was almost by accident that Wool alighted upon this entirely free-hand body of work. Frustrated by an unsuccessful composition of sprayed yellow enamel, the artist took a turpentine soaked rag to the canvas and rigorously effaced his work. Surprisingly pleased with the result, Wool mobilised this ostensible failure to kick-start an entirely new sequence of tremendously successful paintings. Once again brandishing his characteristic black enamel paint, Wool thus cultivated an art form out of an act of self-repudiation. Where his previous works approached compositional collapse through automation and accumulation, the Gray Paintings privilege the potential of detraction. In Untitled, a lattice-like structure of broad scrubbings, ghost-like residues, and half concealed arabesques form an endless imbrication of doing and undoing. Representing an antiheroic paradigm in the art of mark-unmaking, the Gray Paintings are oxymoronic images of definitive uncertainty. Addition is levied by subtraction to depict the ultimate post-modern condition: doubt. As explained by Brinson, the effect of these works is nonetheless surprisingly emotive: “the literal loss enacted in the realisation of these paintings endows them with the character of a lamentation, chiming with the potent strands of angst and melancholia that have always run close to the surface of his work, despite its game face of cool indifference” (Ibid., p. 47).
By 2007 Wool had overcome the technical issues posed by painting solely in enamel on canvas, and was producing works of great confidence and resolution. Belonging to this moment, Untitled is a monumental and eloquent essay on lightness and abstract fluency. It possesses gestures and impulses that cannot be found in the silkscreened works, yet, the wealth of arcane enamel washes impart a unique effect akin to misty celluloid or the ghostly forms of X-ray photography: smooth, faded, and translucent. This work has a kind of weightlessness, perhaps the mark of all truly great abstract painting, defined not by the absence of recognisable things but by the implication of natural forces. Speaking about the Gray Paintings, Christopher Wool has stated: “For me they are ‘pictures’ with all that implies… and that often means that ‘things’ are pictured… but things can be psychological or sensed or dramatic as well as just a figure in a landscape” (Christopher Wool cited in: Ibid., p. 48). By administering an inscrutable, yet symbiotic, cycle of doing and undoing, Wool created a space in which free-hand chaotic lines, nebulous shapes, and indistinct forms co-exist in remarkable aesthetic and emotive cohesion. The result of 20 years of restless inquiry, Untitled is an overwhelming affirmation of paintings’ critical agency ironically borne of both conceptual doubt and pictorial denial.
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