Los Angeles

Tom Wudl

Arco Center For Visual Art

Tom Wudl gained his earliest recognition and is still best known for his delicate perforated rice-paper paintings of the early ’70s. The fragile, unstretched supports of these works carry an array of textbook archetypes—mazes, spirals, triangles, and crosses—in clear colors and gold leaf. The paintings share the cultural primitivism of post-minimalism; their worked-over fragility implies age and archeological rescue, and their loaded yet indecipherable ideograms, the ineffable. Since 1975, however, Wudl has been involved with the creation of his own ideogram: an elongated, tentacled biomorph split in almost symmetrical halves by a jagged spine. This show was the history of that shape and of Wudl’s attempts to endow it with meaning—at first with the unknowable meaningfulness of the paper paintings, and increasingly with a decidedly “effable” one.

Wudl’s shape makes its initial appearances in four large canvases which it shares with a number of other trial shapes: shadowy, skeletal birds, bits of ganglia and viscera, and, in two of the works, the gilt archetypes of the earlier paintings as well. Wudl’s nascent ideogram shares with the mazes and crosses a symmetry, a frontality, and, perhaps, an independence that its trial peers did not possess. In the last of these works Wudl separates his shape from the others by isolating it on a square, purple ground which holds it fast to the surface and anoints it a symbol. In the paintings that follow Wudl gives his shape the same sort of anthropological pedigree its archetypal predecessors had; rendered in gold leaf and egg tempera, it is endowed with the look of the Orient and of the icon, with the trappings of cultural history.

Unlike the mazes and crosses, however, Wudl’s shape seems to have its origins in the margins of school papers and its sources in popular culture. It owes debts to psychedelia and, to hazard a more specific guess, to the early ’60s, to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Hot Rod Cartoons. The shape seems a teenage vision of the soul, and in some of the exhibition’s best paintings Wudl makes clear its adolescent energy, its combination of sexuality and tension. He animates the shape and ties it to the human, or at least humanoid, figure. By altering its form he alters its demeanor. In one large canvas from 1978 the shape appears bedeviled and dancing between two slightly crossed and bloodshot eyelike ovals; its tentacles have become too many arms atop an almost canine pair of legs and tail. In a drawing from the same year the shape is spent, stretched along its spine like a hanging carcass.

Over the next year Wudl’s energized form becomes increasingly specific in its relationship to the figure. It comes to resemble parts rather than the whole, and Wudl begins to place it against its anatomical sources. In a large horizontal diptych from 1980 the shape, bloated and full like a bladder, shares half of the painting with a loose but accurate rendering of the intestines. On the other side is a black and white portrait of a nude woman cropped at mid-face and mid-thigh. Both nude and viscera appear against gridded grounds and are enclosed within painted rectangles; the painting thus suggests a collage. Juxtaposed with the objects of its metaphor, the images that complete it, Wudl’s shape reads with both greater clarity and lessened power. It loses its existence and significance beyond language; it is no longer symbol, but signifier. By making his shape’s connections increasingly specific, Wudl has made it readable. At the same time, however, he has made clear his disbelief in his shape’s ability to be significant as itself, to be a symbol, as well as his distrust of the way symbols contain meaning. He shares his wariness with a generation of artists that distrusts the ineffability of the symbol and, not coincidentally, of abstract painting. The roots of Wudl’s wariness lie, perhaps, in the punched-paper paintings; of the generation’s, in post-minimalism. It is simply too easy to create the iconic and opaque.

But the exhibition’s most recent painting, one of its best, is less lexical than its immediate predecessors. In it Wudl begins again to expand the shape’s significance, not by re-endowing it with a cultural history, but by fashioning for it a natural one—by once again placing it in the landscape. He does not juxtapose the shape with the objects of its metaphors but rather superimposes it on them; the shape gains an at least punned transparency—we literally see through it. Immersed in the translucent, brackish green that covers the lower third of the painting is a recumbent nude, who bears the shape washed on her thighs like a pattern of shadows. As though in stop-action she then reappears, rising from the water with arms oustretched, bearing Wudl’s shape on her back.

Howard Singerman