Robert Wilbert

Donald Morris Gallery

In A Balthus Notebook, Guy Davenport writes, “A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful.” Every element in a Robert Wilbert painting is synecdochic of the artist’s presence. While the images in his paintings are taken from observation, Wilbert cannot be considered a straightforward realist; he makes use of layers of meaning which reside beneath the surface of the exterior world. The components of each mise-en-scène have associations in the synthetic order of culture, but Wilbert’s intention is to portray the artifice of painting itself. Within the frame of representation, narratives arise provisionally, only to be negated by the juxtaposition of elements.

In Figure with Dog, 1989, a bare-chested male model lies supine with his eyes closed, in a pose that brings to mind countless portrayals of the dead Christ. A crouching dog placed at the figure’s feet continues the funerary evocation by recalling the Viking custom of burying the dead warrior with an animal. Wilbert’s recasting of the scene, however, denies any physical evidence of death; there are no wounds on the body, and the figure may well be resting. The equivocality of representation is adduced yet again in that the dog in the painting has actually been rendered from a stuffed animal (a redoubled “Ceci n’est pas un chien,” as it were).

In Mime with Musical Instrument, 1989, Wilbert presents the figure of a mime holding a euphonium; the instrument’s mouthpiece is missing. A statue of St. Anthony stands behind. Michel Foucault’s observation regarding Western painting—that it “asserts the separation between plastic representation (which implies resemblance) and linguistic reference (which excludes it)”—informs the play of significations in the picture, which vacillates between the mute instrument’s truncated wind and the mime’s identity-concealing whiteface. The mime’s pale visage—visually echoed by the sacred icon—is pure surface, as is the skin of painting that gives life to the fictive order contained within the canvas.

Regarding representation and reference, Foucault states the two “can neither merge nor intersect. In one way or another, subordination is required.” Here, the sovereignty of the image defeats corresponding signification. Working between the two poles of representation and reference, Wilbert strikes a delicate balance in which neither side emerges victorious.

Vincent A. Carducci