Multilayered and visually complex, the present work masterfully incorporates a plurality of conceptual frameworks, providing rare access to the artist’s visual lexicon. Wojnarowicz was asked to create a body of work for a show of paintings at Galerie Anna Friebe in Cologne in 1986, and settled on the art historically rich allegorical representation of the four elements. Rather than channel classical interpretations of the theme, Wojnarowicz refitted each elemental attribute within his bourgeoning set of signs. Framed by a crumbling civilization, the present work plays host to four large elemental avatars, presiding over a prototypical southwestern landscape. The artist used this setting to engage his notion of the Preinvented World, an allegory for the constrictions and predetermined order of Western society. Defining the Preinvented World in his essay, Living Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz described this space as “the bought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I’ve always felt like an alien” (The artist quoted in David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, New York 2018, p. 198).
Rising behind the ruins of the artist’s Preinvented World, Wojnorovicz’s four elements are rendered in his unmistakable graphic style, their simplistic forms belying a conceptual complexity and integrity. Each figure in its own way is the product, or perpetrator, of a violent force: Earth is seemingly damaged beyond repair, and water, enmeshed in a bed of flames, is in mortal peril. Conversely, Wind and Fire are reveling in the wake of the destruction around them. The artist makes this mayhem ambiguous, using a cartoonish visual strategy to depict his apocalyptic scene in order to posit what it would mean for the slate to be wiped clean, and the possibility of renewal.
Evading easy legibility, the present work is an epic distillation of conflict and struggle on the scale of history painting. Wojnarowicz’s elemental avatars would appear again and again in his body of work, coming to symbolize people, relationships and events depending on how they were deployed in his compositions. Though they have myriad functions in Wojnarowicz’s diverse output, each of the symbols included in Earth, Wind, Fire and Water are deeply personal, touching on a roiling anger and motivation to direct that emotion towards justice. In the words of Hanya Yangihara, “Indeed, part of what makes Wojnarowicz’s work so potent is how sincere it is. It reminds you that there is a distinction between cynicism and anger, because the work, while angry, is rarely bitter—bitterness is the absence of hope; anger is hope’s companion. What you find instead, tucked like blossoms…is real desire: for love…but also for belonging…In a country where some people are reviled other people are valued, and Wojnarowicz’s gall comes from his daring to have a sense of entitlement, his expectation that he, and all his tribe, should be valued, too” (Hanya Yanagihara, “The Burning House” in David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, New York 2018, p. 67).
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