Schlapp is a painting founded upon juxtaposition and dichotomy. In aesthetic, it heightens and draws out the tension between mark-making and unmaking, between gesture and erasure; and in conceptual terms, it can be viewed not only as a melancholy rumination on doubt as to the future of painting, but also as a celebration of the freedom of line. In this respect, it should be viewed as a paradigmatic example of the ‘Grey Paintings’ series. In 2000, an accidental discovery of the interaction between turpentine and enamel paint resulted in the instigation of this unique body of work. In a moment of creative frustration, Wool had taken to the canvas with a turpentine soaked rag in an attempt to erase his painterly efforts. However, rather than a clean slate wiped blank, he was left with a blurred mass of chaotic grey wash – a compelling abstract composition in itself, redolent of broad brushstrokes in its gestural power. Thus, an act of destruction evolved into a process of creation. As the series developed, these paintings began to alternate the act of erasing with the act of drawing resulting in a series which embraced the qualities of line and reasserted the importance of gesture within this artist’s praxis. The present example is a distillation of the process: asinine lines swirl through the surface, puncturing and entangling veils of hazy grisaille wash. There is a pervasive sense of layering and of depth and of false perspectival recession. We are reminded of Glenn O’Brien’s judgement of these series: “Every painting has a time signature, and sometimes Wool plays with this. What came first here? What was added?” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Apocalypse and Wallpaper’, in Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, p. 11)
Like a vandal taking a spray-can to the wall, Wool simultaneously defaces and makes anew in this work. A mood of urban toughness and street-smarts abounds, as it does in so many of this artist’s best known paintings. From the very outset of his career, his identity has been associated with an abrasive urban sensibility, and many of his works lend themselves to a comparison with graffiti. His dramatic Letter paintings provide comparisons in content, appropriating words and phrases from vernacular culture in an equitable manner. Meanwhile, with their snaking spray-paint lines, the Grey Paintings provide a worthy reflection of the graffiti aesthetic. At the height of New York’s graffiti movement, with its heavily decorated letters, legibility was pushed beyond its elastic limit and trumped by graphic spectacle. In Schlapp the legibility is abstracted even further, inviting a search for figurative reference whilst simultaneously deferring this satisfaction.
Wool’s drive to experiment with a plethora of artistic languages established his practice alongside other contemporary visionaries, such as Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen; who likewise dared to challenge the status quo of painting from within the medium itself. This small body of artists sprung up around the rejection of an ideal that was voiced by the art historian Douglas Crimp in 1981 as ‘the end of painting’. Since then, Wool has embarked on a series of career progressions from paintings of vines and floral prints, to the pre-eminent digital silkscreens and stencilled word pictures, through to the reductive strategies employed in his series of Grey Paintings from which the present work originates. The Grey Paintings reinforce his comment that “the traditional idea of an objective masterpiece is no longer possible.” (Christopher Wool cited in Katherine Brinson, ‘Trouble is my Business’, in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 47) Thus, Schlapp is an exemplary paradigm of the contemporary masterpiece, with its grand scale and bold, gestural movements creating an impressively balanced and multi-faceted composition.
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