Glenn O’Brien, 'Apocalypse and Wallpaper' in: Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 11.
At a time when the very possibility of painting had become a hotly debated topic, Christopher Wool's turn to a subject-matter that had always been out of question for 'serious’ artists was a characteristically astute response to a medium in crisis. By using decorative patterns not just as imagery but appropriating the very tools with which they were made, Wool brought into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about painting, opening up new possibilities for the genre. An outstanding example of Wool’s radical reassessment of the medium of painting, Give It Up or Turn It Loose (1994) stands testament to both the artist’s influential oeuvre, and to a crucial turning point in the history of painting. The title of the work is drawn from the renowned song by James Brown from 1970, and indeed the dynamic movements and energetic flow of Wool’s painting are reminiscent of the American singer’s boisterous and gyratory stage presence. The famously repetitive nature of Brown's song lyrics, as much as its funky rhythmic beats, seem playfully emulated in the haphazard and duplicated aesthetic of the present work.
Belonging to a series of paintings that Wool began in 1986 and continually revisited over the following decades, Give It Up or Turn It Loose was inspired by the cheap wallpaper used by landlords to decorate New York City apartments. Easily available as an interior decoration quick-fix, the rollers and rubber stamps used for floral wall-covering patterns were about as anti-art as a source could be, and yet, for Wool, they simultaneously captured the punk aesthetic of the time and offered an unexpected way forward for painting. Undermining the conventional narratives of abstraction, which were historically rooted in a highly academic or expressive understanding of forms, Wool’s innovative paintings brought to light the potential of abstraction without a high-brow referent. By appropriating quotidian floral patterns as source imagery for abstract painting, Wool provocatively repurposed the decorative as esteemed, high-art. Akin to Warhol before him, who in 1964 adopted a banal and decorative photograph of flowers as the basis for his ironic and iconic Flowers series, Wool looked to extend the notion of high-art via the low-brow. Unlike Warhol however, who was concerned with elevating the mass-produced into the realm of high-art, Wool took on the quotidian as a means of extending the history of abstract forms. As curator Katherine Brinson notes, "Wool’s pattern painting evokes a peculiar disjunction between the prettifying intention of the rollers and the ascetic formal language in which he deployed them, described as an interesting friction generated by putting forms that were supposed to be decorative in such severe terms” (Katherine Brinson, Christopher Wool, New York 2013, p. 38).
When, in the mid-1990s, Wool abandoned his roller technique in favour of the silkscreen, he shifted his emphasis from reduction to layering. Reproducing and enlarging floral motifs from rubber stamps, Wool repeated the same stamps in rich layers of thick black enamel; as they accumulated upon the aluminium surface over time, the dense layers increased in complexity and density as though blooming outward from the centre of the picture plane. Wool’s accrual of an armature of stamps and 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. Describing the artist’s practice in 1995, the author Joshua Decter wrote: “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 aluminium 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 curator 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-individualised error within mechanical application, Give It Up or Turn It Loose 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 screen-register reveal the intricate individuality contained within each successive layer. Manifesting an unprecedented union between painting and process, the profound expressive impact of Give It Up or Turn It Loose resides in Wool’s virtuosic layering, overprinting, and variegation of his enamel blooms – indeed, as though echoing the inherently individualised nature of the organic forms pictured within, no two flower paintings could ever approach similitude. Simultaneously ready-made and painterly, emphatic and blurred, intricate and explosive, Give It Up or Turn It Loose 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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