(Glenn O’Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper” in Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 11)
Unfurling before the viewer in an intricate web of pitch-black enamel paint on aluminum support, Untitled from 1993 is a mesmerizing testament to Christopher Wool’s singular investigation of and contribution to the medium of painting. Built up of screen after layered screen of Wool’s signature floral patterns, the individual images within the painting bleed and merge to create an exquisite cacophony of expressive abstraction; while scattered organic forms remain distinct within the inky undergrowth, the overall effect is one of riotous, untamed painterliness. Here, the artist employs nearly every motif in his arsenal of industrially sourced decorative images—multi-petal flowers bloom voluptuously amidst assorted bouquets and potted plants, the lacy grids of his floral roller-brush patterns overlaid like graphic strata. Counterbalancing the sensuous curves and liquid elegance of Wool’s inky blossoms, thin veils of blurred grisaille speckle the negative space with a distinctly urban grit, emphasizing the insurgent undertones inherent to Wool’s anarchic artistic practice. Visually enthralling in its monochrome multidimensionality, the unruly beauty of Untitled invokes critic Glenn O’Brien’s memorable description: “Wool’s compositions spring from the hungry spirit of the urban landscape, the weedy nature of the vacant lot…Wool takes prettiness and jacks it up until Marshall amp level distortion sets in. This amp goes to eleven. You’re in Sonic Youth territory where the composition seems to swarm, gathered within the borders of the canvas as if by magnetic force or biological imperative.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper” in Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 11)
Executed in 1993, Untitled is a superb exemplar of Wool’s iconic series of flower paintings; initiated in the late 1980s, these works are amongst the most elegant distillations of the artist’s post-modern and post-conceptual approach to painting. The series originated in Wool’s discovery of patterned rollers incised with blossoms, leaves, and vines, used by New York landlords to paint the hallways of their building in place of the more expensive décor option of wallpaper. Available in hardware and art-supply stores, these prosaic tools interested Wool for their circular capacity for mechanical reproduction and the disjunction between abstraction and figuration that resulted from their impressions. By transferring black enamel paint onto these rollers and then to primed aluminum panels, Wool activates the pictorial vocabulary of industrial decoration within the hallowed echelons of fine art; while these images have referents within reality, their existence on the picture plane becomes purely abstract and wholly mechanical. Describing Wool’s manipulation of found imagery, O’Brien notes: “Wool uses clip art and decorative rollers in the way he uses verbal clichés. He recycles base materials, signs of commercial kitsch and decorative banality, and the husks of devalued emotional triggers, transforming them through a sort of alchemical overkill into strangely beautiful compositions.” (Ibid.) Several years later, Wool fabricated rubber stamps from the imagery of his favorite rollers, magnifying the images of flowers and initiating a system of visual noise in the procedural fallout that resulted in the image. Echoing the elegantly ornate curvature of Henri Matisse's blooming botanic cut-outs, Wool's stamps similarly abstract the forms to successfully obfuscate the boundaries between reality and representation. Despite their familiarity as ornamental forms, however, these are not the neon-bright Flowers of Warhol, nor the gleaming Balloon Tulips of Koons, but something altogether darker and more emphatic. O’Brien describes: “Wool transforms kitsch, something overused and depleted, into something powerful and primal. The cartoon flowers have a sort of skull and bones mojo to them, projecting the doom of happiness, the sinister bend of the cute. They are late-breaking flowers of evil.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper” in Ibid.) Taking this dislocation of the original source image one step further, in 1992-1993 Wool began to use the silkscreen with enlargements of flower images derived from the earlier wallpaper rollers and textile design, opening up the potential for greater impact. As exemplified by the present work, Wool also began to experiment with layering images atop each other, resulting in glitches such as skips, stutters, and drips—the outlines of Wool’s screens are clearly delineated on the surface of the present work, overlapping in a lush maelstrom of unruly growth.
When, in the mid-1990s, Wool abandoned his roller technique in favor of silkscreen, he shifted his emphasis from reduction to layering. Enlarging and reproducing floral motifs from rubber stamps, Wool repeated the same stamps in rich layers of thick black enamel; as they accumulate upon the aluminum surface over time, the dense layers increase in complexity and density as though blooming outward from the center of the picture plane. Wool’s accrual of an armature of screens creates a lush cacophony of densely layered forms that project an aura at once fully resolved and utterly dynamic. As petals, flower stalks, and various vine patterns burst forth across the surface atop grades of thickly applied enamel and overlapping drips, Wool creates a picture plane rife with action that simultaneously imparts a stark flatness. One scholar describes: “Wool offers us access to a world where things are layered to the point of implosion, where iconographic elements are built up only to virtually fall apart. These recent paintings are also his most emphatically ‘painterly’ to date: the more Wool endeavors to blot out, the more complex things get.” (Joshua Decter, “Christopher Wool: Luhring Augustine Gallery,” Artforum 34, September 1995, p. 89) In the alabaster intervals of aluminum between the enamel forms, Wool leaves traces of the corners and edges of each screen, creating shadowy registers that read like successive frames within a slideshow, caught between transitions. In the sumptuous painterly extravagance of the present work, we are made privy to the schema of procedural omissions or ‘glitches’ that disrupt the ostensibly decorative pattern that it presents. As explained by Ann Goldstein, these paintings from 1993-1995 explored image constructions as simultaneous products of both build-up and erasure: “The banality that one associates with Andy Warhol’s silkscreened flowers is overwhelmed by the grittiness of Wool’s intense and seemingly out-of-control compositions. The first silkscreen works continue the additive process by laying black flower images on top of each other. Wool later introduced white into the works, painting out certain areas, and then silkscreening the black images again, wherein the process that produces the works becomes both additive and reductive.” (Ann Goldstein in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 262) Welcoming the potential for hyper-individualized error within mechanical application, Untitled revels in the mishaps of dripped paint and slipped outlines: ghostly traces of previous impressions are visible along the outer edges of the composition, while hazy zones of sprayed paint and smeared off-register screens reveal the intricate individuality contained within each successive layer. Manifesting an unprecedented union between painting and process, the profound expressive impact of Untitled resides in Wool’s virtuosic layering, overprinting, and variegation of his enamel blooms—indeed, as though echoing the inherently individualized nature of the organic forms pictured within, no two flower paintings could ever approach similitude. At once ready-made and painterly, emphatic and blurred, intricate and explosive, Untitled fluently fuses the abstract and the figurative within a single, exquisite whole, serving as arresting testament to Wool’s singular reinvigoration of the genre of painting.
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