Los Angeles

Michael Wilkinson

Daniel Hug

It’s not surprising that mirrors, as both pictorial subjects and actual objects, appeared frequently in the art of the 1960s, when many artists were staking their claims on the treacherous interzone between painting and sculpture. Roy Lichtenstein painted “mirrors” in graphic shorthand, while Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, and Art & Language, among others, employed the real thing to great and varied effect. Richard Artschwager approached the looking glass from both sides, so to speak, and no artist of the period used the mirror—with its unsparingly honest and insistent reflections, and the inescapable spatial and social ramifications thereof—more conspicuously than Michelangelo Pistoletto.

That Pistoletto is not very well known in this country perhaps works to the advantage of Glasgow-based artist Michael Wilkinson, whose recent exhibition of mirror works reprised those of his Italian forebear, if in a complicated way. Wilkinson began his investigation of mirrors with an ongoing series, begun in 2003, that incorporates vintage kitsch posters from the 1970s and ’80s depicting anthropomorphized monkeys performing all-too-human routines (exercising, sitting on the toilet, playing poker, and so on) fused seamlessly onto the back surfaces of sheets of glass that were originally mirrored. These works follow quite directly from Pistoletto’s signature use of mirrors as “mats” for paintings and (later) photographs of objects and figures. Both artists’ mirrors implicate the viewer and “real” space, though Wilkinson’s monkeys replace Pistoletto’s primarily everyday images (a light bulb, a bottle, a staircase) with something more loaded. And while the monkeys are more disturbing than funny, one could say that the artist’s critique of the posters—and the societal values they reflect—owes more to the inherent potency of the source image and the mirrors themselves than to any specific mediation of the two.

That said, Wilkinson’s recent body of work is more generous, even as—or perhaps precisely because—it confounds the viewer. This time echoing Pistoletto’s Muretto di mattoni, 1962–70, a life-size photograph of an unfinished (or ruined) red brick wall matted with a mirror, each of the several works titled Wall (all works 2005) on view here delivers a flat, isometric rendering of stacked bricks and mortar. Wilkinson exchanges opacity for reflection or reflection for transparency by carefully scraping off silver from the mirrored glass, revealing the wooden framework and white gallery wall beneath. Relying on a handful of simple but smart moves, and employing some droll visual tactics that owe more than a little to Artschwager, Wilkinson’s “Walls” perform a deadpan comedy routine that unfolds like a slow-burn gag. The question of whether the works qualify as “paintings” seems secondary to their status as ambiguous objects that disturb social and psychological space by manipulating the signs of painting. They do this while continuously deflecting from the painterly surface via reflection, transparency, or three-dimensional punctuation (plastic ferns protrude from three of the works). Thus Wilkinson avoids a fatal elegance while simultaneously heightening the drama, mining shallow relief as deeply as he can.

The six wall works here benefited from a careful installation that elaborated infinite regress and dragged the viewer into a complex game of hide-and-seek. Recalling the “abysmal” symmetry of Robert Smithson’s Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1964, these sometimes made the viewer appear to vanish, as two incomplete surfaces visually interlocked, via reflection, to complete one another. Coincidentally, Wilkinson’s show overlapped with Morgan Fisher’s relatively austere series of “Scratched Film Frames,” 2005, at China Art Objects, featuring mirrors proportioned after the different aspect ratios of commercial film stock. Despite their divergent concerns, it would be difficult not to see these two exhibitions as coincident mirrors of one another, presenting a doubled contest between surface and reflection.

Michael Ned Holte