New York

William Wilson

Allan Stone Gallery

One effect of our shopworn and frayed post-Modernity has been to inculcate a cavalier attitude toward the art of the past, ostensibly for the purpose of depriving it of oppressive and authoritarian power. The monuments of the past are commonly subjected to relentless and almost mechanical rituals of demystification. And yet this demystifying approach oddly confirms the provisional success of Modernism’s passionately wished-for break from the ruins of the past. Indeed, it is as if the Modernists actually pulled it off, as our memory sometimes seems to extend no further back than, maybe, to Manet. Perversely, the meaningful past has shrunk to a hundred-odd years.

What happens when this relation is reversed, when the “recent” past is elided in favor of more antique memories? William Wilson dwells on the authority of older images as they persist in the contemporary consciousness. In his carefully rendered paintings after 17th-century Dutch masters Frans van Mieris the Elder and Jan Vermeer, Wilson displays the anxieties—sometimes fruitful, sometimes just worried—of his artistic belatedness. Severed from most currents of contemporary taste, he plays on the distant past with mingled love, amazement, envy, and fear. In his less successful works, Wilson resorts to a low-comedic dressing-down of his sources, as in two paintings after van Mieris: in one, a lady feeds a bunch of rats rather than birds; in another, a similarly dressed woman chats with a scowling clown. These attempts at lighthearted deflation only reinforce the seemingly inexorable power of the originals. But in certain other treatments of these masters, Wilson introduces a needling strain of modern disequilibrium into the fastidiously composed and airtight surfaces of his models.

In Gathering: After Vermeer (all works 1991), Wilson takes as his subject one of Vermeer’s paintings of women reading or writing letters. Letters were familiar motifs in Dutch genre painting of the mid-17th century, and they were typically understood to represent love letters. In The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, 1983, Svetlana Alpers stresses the meaning of “the letter as a text that absorbs attention while remaining inaccessible.” Vermeer’s painting elaborates a tension between the ample evidence of what is seen and a secret meaning. Wilson brings to the surface his interpretation of that elusive content. Behind the seated woman hangs a body swaddled in a shroud, bound with ropes, and covered with monarch butterflies. The fragile weightlessness of the insects contrasts with the heft of the presumably dead male body, uniting decorative elaboration and sadism.

Alpers’ interpretation of Dutch painting, and particularly Vermeer, proceeds from an implicit but unmistakably feminist perspective: “For all their presence, Vermeer’s women are a world apart, inviolate, self-contained, but, more significantly, self-possessed. . . . Vermeer recognizes the world present in these women as something that is other than himself and with a kind of passionate detachment he lets it, through them, be.” Wilson pumps male subjectivity back into the painting. Enunciating the heretofore secret content of Vermeer’s serene and mysterious letter writer, he transforms her into a cunning murderess, evoking a mental state verging on male hysteria.

David Rimanelli