Shirley Wiitasalo

Shirley Wiitasalo came into her own as a New Image painter in the ’70s. At the time, formalism was a decade past its prime and, according to many in the art world, painting was dead. Shunning the formalist approach, Wiitasalo and others set about transposing issues like two-dimensionality and objecthood into ironic images and pursuing a type of painting based on a representational visual language and a more intimate scale. It was clever, educated, and casual, and underscored a resurgence of improvisational subjectivity.

Wiitasalo’s earlier work was not included in this midcareer retrospective (curated by Philip Monk), which consisted of 20 pictures done between 1981 and ’87; but the same issues and concerns have continued to shape the ideas that inform her painting. The subject of pictures such as Interview, Interior, Expensive/Expansive, and The Glow and the Flow, all from 1981, is the Tube, and their visual syntax is equivalent to television’s continuous flow of images. Their woozy wash of fractured imagery is intended as a critique as well as a description of the media world. A decade of media art has subsequently made us familiar with the point they make. It is interesting, however, to speculate that this concern with media may have shaped the “painting is dead” atmosphere in which Wiitasalo began. In hindsight, the impoverishment associated with formalism appears to be partly attributable to the impoverishing influence of the Tube—that is, the debilitated constructive capacity of the formalist approach can now be seen as a function of the consequences of how we relate to the mass media and their oversaturation of images, including passivity, impatience, and a diminished ability to distinguish among a complex network of signals. The recent resurrection of abstraction has been strongly linked to the revisionist view that geometric abstraction can and does carry a social content.

Wiitasalo’s characteristic format of small, self-contained vignettes in her paintings plays off this idea of media damage. These vignettes, which are usually a bit fuzzy around the edges, serve as buffers between the image and the real world (i.e., the rest of the painting, and, by extension, what lies beyond the edges of the painting itself). They also make the subjective process of imaging explicit: each vignette is a visual field contained by a softly painted outline, like a picture in an eye socket, as if the seeing of the image were a part of the image. Everything in these pictures hovers—the images are sites where paint impinges on concept. Definition, in a formal sense, is space—just enough paint to register an image, just enough image to register an idea. Questions raised in the course of reading the images are sometimes complicated by this assertive light touch. Green Mirror with Sculpture, 1986, for instance, rhymes the sculpture of the title with its site, which is in a cave. The picture is all curves, holes, and tunnels, and the divisions between conceptual categories break down. The painting is an occasion to speculate on the nature of images, the nature of art, even the nature of museums. But the thought carries only so far before it seems let down by a lack of both definition and substance. The chain of association bottoms out, like an insight lost.

Some of the paintings are indulgently self-reflective, as if it still counts to say that the only subject left to painting is painting. This can be explained away as an inquiry into representation. But then this is just a rewriting of formalism. Paintings like Papago Park, 1984, where a rock formation doubles as both an innocent tourist site and a sinister giant’s head, lead us to expect more. We see in it a cool ironic vi- sion overpowered by a projective paranoia: first world, third world, dream world all intersect in a space that feels familiar. That space is of course painting; it is not dead and it does not have to be deadening.

Richard Rhodes