Los Angeles

Tom Wudl

Tom Wudl’s tour of earthly delights takes two forms. Tiny paintings (as small as four by three inches) of isolated objects—a goblet, a yellow fish, a bird, a hand holding a bullet paradoxicallyfeel as expansive as the gigantic The Rapture of Dionysus (all works 1991), a painting that features an explosion of information—a burst of flora, a clock, a deck shoe, a violin, and the Challenger spaceship exploding in a galaxy studded with stars and planets. Small paintings have a tendency to be awkwardly constricted, but Wudl’s diminutive works do not fall prey to rigidity and stiffness; they are loose, loopy, and have a remarkable fullness. The intimate paintings pull you into a tête-à-tête with one particular element. Indeed, each piece seems to encapsulate the world in a single image.

Some of Wudl’s titles are obnoxious and run the risk of trivializing his efforts. Antique Bowls and Contemporary Art Critic features two pieces of china and a long-legged fly. An Important Conference on Post Studio Issues, or Beware of the Pre-Raphaelites consists of 17 white rabbits in a garden. These titles come across as defensive swipes at art critics and conceptual art practice respectively. Fortunately, however, an extreme visual enchantment that depends on various paradoxes—illusion and reality, mortality and birth, man and animal, aggression and repose—makes up for these cheap shots.

The trouble with a lot of artists who work representationally, with a toe in the present and the rest of their body in the 15th century, is that they are so fixated on history, so determined to hang with the big boys, that their work lacks contemporaneity and identity and ends up falling flat on its face. Wudl avoids this problem by comically juxtaposing contradictory techniques, letting rival types of painting duke it out right before the viewers’ eyes. He builds up thick, garish surfaces as distracting backdrops as if to screech, “This blob is paint, which is a material of the world, therefore a real thing.” (“Real” in the opposite way that the perfectly rendered, hyperrealistic bird, snake, or fish are.) In Interior Inclinations a yellow fish lurks in a rectangle of black, which is bordered by a field of gray/green. Underneath the two squares is a grungy area of brown and red followed by a thick swath of orange that echoes the fish’s lower lip and also functions as a weird frontal color guide. But Wudl’s blunt smears also perform well as design and decoration; indeed, there is a surprising tyranny of balance at work in his paintings. As transitory and fragile as his army of images is, a fierce sense of symmetry orders the whole. It’s almost as if Wudl’s contemplation of life cannot take place unless everything is plumb; he’d sooner paint monochromes than admit asymmetrical elements. These paintings are staunchly ordered—civilized in their humility and even in their flashes of ecstasy.

Benjamin Weissman