Libby Wadsworth

Libby Wadsworth’s pictorial contributions to the ambiguities of the image/text dichotomy are certainly well-intentioned. Wadsworth attempts to mimic the traditions of old-master still-life painting—a gesture not without its dutiful degree of homage—and then over- or underlays these images with stencillike sequences of text, often in the form of diagrammed sentences. Word and picture are set to exist in malleable harmony, dependent on Wadsworth as to how directly or obscurely they will interrelate. Sometimes this relationship is quite straightforward: an apple hovering an inch or two over a table in Untitled, 1989, shares the canvas with the diagrammed sentence, “The apple is on the table.” More poetic is He Said, 1989, in which another carefully rendered apple sits amidst a very involved diagram of the more puzzling and mysterious quote, “Glazing is recommended for only very tart apples, he said.”

Much could be gleaned from this approach. The ambiguities and doubtful authority of both image and text are, like apples, ripe for deconstruction and decontextualization. That Wadsworth’s endeavor seems finally stultifying, wooden, and misplaced is due to her flawed understanding and utilization of her sources, and her forced amalgamation of them into what becomes an esthetic goo of confusing focus. Take, for example, Wadsworth’s use of art history. Still lifes by artists such as Caravaggio, Juan Sánchez Cotán, Alberto Giacometti, and some Cubist prototypes are leadenly copied with a heavy handed and bothersome lack of pictorial sensitivity to their sources. Diffident brushwork, unstable space, and a dull and monochromatic command of color serve to defuse Wadsworth’s intentions, mercilessly charting the distance between her efforts and the stature of her prototypes. Words too get stencilled together in uneasy and surprisingly pedestrian passages. Untitled, 1992, actually has clichéd pseudoprofundities such as “cogito, ergo sum” and “to be or not to be” appearing in deadpan seriousness within the same painting, sharing space with a copy of a Caravaggio still life that makes one yearn for the original. What might be intended to serve as a critique, to comment on patterns of understanding, to assault, in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, the uneasy authority of a dominant (and male) voice, finally appears so arbitrary and willful as to become hopelessly mannerist. Wadsworth was best served here by those few paintings that treated image and text in a more independent manner, as in Untitled, 1992, in which a Cubist painting is overlaid with the more poignant and open possibilities of “And here is my Elizabeth.”

It might be pedantic to make too much of this, but Untitled (Cotán [sic] and Gertrude Stein), 1992, figures many of the problems in this exhibition: instead of giving the almost universal form of the Spanish artist’s last name, Sanchez Cotán, she gives it as Cotán—an aberration repeated by the museum in the brochure accompanying the exhibition. It is just this inattention to detail, the careless misuse of a source, the willful glossing over of what might seem to her to be unimportant or tangential that undercuts Wadsworth’s entire agenda. This piece everywhere fell short of its cited models, its imprimatur of borrowed stature spoiled by indiscriminate and incoherent quotations. For her approach to work, Wadsworth needs an audience willing to suspend disbelief, not one made wary and suspicious; here, her veneer of focus and direction did not overcome an attendant capriciousness and arbitrariness. Faults within the system made the poetics of this entire construct shaky and indeterminate.

James Yood