New York

Donald Roller Wilson

Coe Kerr Gallery

Picture a large and serious ape (Beverly) in a royal red dress befitting a queen, furred and jeweled crown on her head, one hand holding a wet and juicy green pepper stuffed with thoroughly foul matter—go on, use your imagination—the other clutching a worried bulldog in a white dress (Jane). In the background, a heavy fringed drapery, pulled aside like a curtain, allows the viewer to peek into a lush, dark forest. Across the top of the canvas in small neat print: “DONALD ROLLER WILSON • 1991 • BEVERLY • HOLDING JANE • WHO WOULDN’T TOUCH HER LUNCH • WHO LATER ESCAPED TO SANIBEL ISLAND WHERE SHE (ALONG WITH CHARLOTTE) DID JUST FINE •”

Welcome to the world of Donald Roller Wilson, a world in which Beatrix Potter’s Tom Kittens and Puddleducks might well take tea with the highly individualistic, religious, and often nearly hallucinatory folk that populate Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. These 16 paintings provide a stunning view of the work of this Texas-born recluse currently hiding in the hills of Arkansas. Working in an exquisitely refined technique reminiscent of the old masters, with references ranging from Rembrandt to Stephen King, Wilson has developed a narrative with a cast of regulars. The scenes illustrated here hark back to Wilson’s earlier work, to the home of a Mrs. Jenkins, who moved from New York to Arkansas 118 years ago and has not set foot out of doors since. For news of the world, she must depend on the various monkeys, dogs, and cats who entertain themselves around her home. Bits of information are either written directly into the painting or appear as the titles of the works.

Wilson expands upon historic precedents regarding the use of animals as devices for social/political commentary—George Orwell’s Animal Farm, 1946, or, more currently and whimsically, William Wegman’s photographs—incorporating elements of classic portraiture (it is significant that many of the works are presented in large ornately carved and gilded frames). In part, what we get here is a kind of painting that exists in that narrow space between known and unknown worlds—that gets at a side of ourselves that is darker, more mischievous and entertaining, than our everyday personas. Throughout, Wilson makes our ears burn; he touches on that awareness of seeing and being seen, of getting caught doing what you know you oughtn’t. The heightened drama and intensely focused realness with which objects are rendered goes beyond hyperrealism into a realm, more familiar to children than adults, where disbelief is entirely suspended. The scenes in works such as COOKIE. . . (SHE HAD SEEN THEM BEFORE . . . IN THE GARDEN) . . . BUT SHE HAD NEVER HAD ONE THIS BIG AND LONG . . . (AND SHE WAS WORRIED THAT GOD WOULD TAKE IT AWAY FROM HER IF SHE DIDN’T HURRY AND GET HER BLOUSE BACK ON) . . . , 1991 , are situated in the gray hallway of Mrs. Jenkins’ house—a hallway replete with peeling paint reminiscent of the deteriorating wallpaper in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, 1991. It should be noted that Cookie is a young orangutan who sometimes dresses as a boy, sometimes as a girl. In COOKIE . . . she appears youthful, surprised, and excited, wearing a white dress-collar and a slip or skirt that only comes up to her nipples. Clutching a wet spear of asparagus, her eyes wide and focused on something in the distance, it’s as though she sees herself being seen—perhaps by the eyes of God. Her hair and the asparagus stalk are blown back as if a surprise wind had come up, and a halo of white radiates off both the asparagus stalk and Cookie’s head. The presence of God and the use of air currents—frequently objects such as coffee cups, stuffed green olives, pencils, cigarette butts, and the occasional fried egg take flight—are recurrent themes for Wilson. Beads of sweat often drip from things, and, throughout a passion for depicting the tactile prevails; in several of the paintings one finds grape jelly that is palpably sticky to the eye.

These paintings are Gothic and grotesque in the purest of Southern senses, but there is more to it than that. Wilson specializes in subtle and surprising juxtaposition. Within each work he taps into centuries of painterly concern—nods to Da Vinci, Bosch, and Ingres are combined with details from his own breakfast that very morning and perhaps a little gossip about the people who live next door. In part, it is the way in which time is compressed and compounded that gives Wilson’s work an eerie otherworldliness that simultaneously remains somehow familiar (many of the works are timed as well as dated). Throughout, Wilson’s execution is seamless; because he never stints on technique, his work avoids appearing as simply a compendium of references and instead the paintings offer something entirely unique. The world of Donald Roller Wilson is exciting and eccentric, a never-never land where anything can and will happen.

A. M. Homes