Santa Barbara

Tom Wudl

Center of Creative Studies

Tom Wudl’s paintings continue to be anomalies, even in a town full of anomalous, isolated artists. His work of the last year or so, minus one large and obviously significant painting, was shown recently. The absence of the big painting, a three-panel, gold-leaf extravaganza that seems to be a compendium of Wudl’s symbols, prevents the clearest possible understanding of the other pictures, just as the inclusion of two small gouache drawings—the latest work—complicates any prognostication.

All of Wudl’s mature work has been eccentric, both in imagery and its luxurious sensuality. His paper constructions of colored geometric shapes collaged to a perforated ground, often embellished with gold leaf, were memorable, partly because of their physical richness, and partly because they became more legible, almost stridently so, year by year. The evolution was from an essentially formal organization to a more anthropological, narrative one. The paintings shown here are a distillation of that move; they are overtly ideogrammatic.

The obsessiveness that previously compelled Wudl’s handicraft has been converted to a feeling of frenzied expressionism, a feeling at once less specific and more ambitious than the painstaking labor that characterized the earlier paintings. The physical animation of the perforations, the translucent-opaque duality, has a counterpart here in Wudl’s disturbing imagery and his penchant for opposing one part of a painting to another part, usually in a top/bottom, left/right composition.

All the paintings and the two drawings share at least one image—a stylized Rorschach blot, its center jaggedly fractured and separated as if by a bolt of lightning, its perimeters a tangle of curved tentacles. This agitated creature-condition symbol is introduced in red on a small, gold-leaf-ground painting and hung to the immediate left on entering the gallery, evidently to indicate its function as a key for what follows. For instance, one untitled horizontal painting suggests, by its composition and its installation, that the blot form should be read as a sort of torso. It looks like an abstraction from a cross-section of our internal organs, a reading confirmed by another painting, a vertical one, which makes similar use of the form as torso while adding a rainbow-hued ellipse with a gold band through it on its top half—a sign of cranial intelligence?

His two latest drawings include realistically drawn things, a kitten in one, a portrait of the artist’s face in the other, in tandem with a more patently symbolical half: the kitten is juxtaposed with the blot afire, the face with the blot as torso again.

But, as in the work of someone like Alfred Jensen, the significance of Wudl’s paintings supersedes their iconography. The meaning of his symbols is of less interest than his decision to use them.

Richard Armstrong

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