New York

Lynton Wells

Cunningham Ward Gallery

Lynton Wells’ work is a kind of synthesis of photography and painting. In his show at Cunningham Ward, there are four large four-panel works, and two smaller single-panel works which appear to be sketches. Wells’ works are large photographic prints made on photosensitized linen, stretched on a frame, and partially painted with black or white acrylic. The subjects photographed are a studio wall, and normal studio paraphernalia, such as ladders, reflector lamps, wires, and huge sheets of clear plastic. There is no special sense of the artist’s studio about the works, or of biography or personal quaintness. The arrangements of objects are simple and straightforward, if not always clear. Wells takes advantage of the accepted reality of the photographic depiction, and confuses it with the application of paint. The painted lines or areas conflict with, and at times destroy, the illusion of depth in the photograph. Part of the confusion stems from the occasional difficulty of distinguishing painted lines from photographic ones. The confusion is compounded by the way the photographic and painted depictions take in, as if part of the depiction, the lines formed by the physical butting of the four panels. The butted lines can easily appear as part of the photograph, which is also to say, as part of the painting. Most of the painted elements conform to the lights and darks of the photograph, only accenting or heightening the depiction. Other lines, in a sense, have nothing to do with the photograph, and simply hang on the surface, independent of the photographic depiction. In EA 72–73, the photograph spanning four panels is of a studio wall, a step ladder, and a reflector lamp on the floor shining on the wall. It is difficult to say for certain, but it appears that a large sheet of plastic was suspended between these objects and the camera. The location of the plastic sheets in all the works is extremely ambiguous, and in just about every case, appears to be draped over the work rather than as a depicted element. In addition to the light from the reflector lamp, the wall is lit by white paint. The white painted light makes the wall and photograph seem brighter than it should be, and, illusionistically, pushes the plastic of the foreground against the depicted wall. In some areas, the white paint causes the plastic to disappear altogether. The location of the plastic is further confused by regular thin black painted lines, which are independent of anything in the depiction, over this white area.

These are extremely puzzling works, and for me, interesting ones. Wells fully exploits photographic assumptions of reality as a condition for confusion. He evades the clichés of touched-up photographs, even though that’s essentially what his work is. The work is technically representational, but what is represented is not so important as the fact of the occurrence of representation. In trying to distinguish photographic lines from painted ones, it is necessary to consider by what criteria such distinctions are identified. But Wells’ works present more than a which-is-which sort of game; for even when painted lines are identified, why they are read, or can be read, as photographic lines is still a relevant question. Perceptual questions are limited to what is seen, but seeing a black line and knowing what it is are two different kinds of activities. Of all the representational work discussed in these reviews, only Wells seems to be pushing toward a new usage.

Bruce Boice