Jonathan Wateridge

David Risley Gallery

Immense shipwrecks and the mysterious remains of plane crashes sur- rounded by magnificent natural landscapes—stormy oceans; steaming jungles; majestic mountains straight out of “America the Beautiful”—figure in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Jonathan Wateridge’s debut exhibition. The four big, irresistibly romantic paintings that comprise the show are evocative of both nineteenth-century American landscape painting à la Frederic Church and Hollywood extravaganzas like Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). Wateridge’s sublime paintings turn contemporary, however, by virtue of the unique, complex technique the artist employs: Each is painted in oil on ten large, overlapping sheets of Plexiglas; the resulting object is about a foot thick. Thus the illusion of receding perspective is literally constructed, producing a contrived three-dimensional space recalling the strained effect of 3-D movies from the ’50s. Wateridge’s labor-intensive technique ends up feeling as nostalgic as its subject matter; faced with these grand, shimmering works we become like old-time moviegoers, overwhelmed by low-tech and mechanical special effects. Nevertheless, the almost miraculous seamlessness of the final image floating through layers of transparent material is as awe-inspiring and pleasurable as the overblown images themselves. The artist’s virtuoso technique allows him to indulge in extravagant painterly flourishes—dabs of white paint at the crest of breaking waves in Seascape with Wrecked Battleship, 2006, or thin washes of oil paint that produce the silty waters at the bottom of the ocean in The Wreck of the Constitution, 2006, and the mist rising from the jungle in Jungle River Landscape with Plane Wreck, 2005–2006. Up close, such artful touches look unresolved, but, when viewed from a distance, seem quite the opposite, their almost photographic precision enhancing one’s enjoyment of the painterly spectacle.

These are unapologetically escapist works, and what at first they seem to be escaping from is modernism itself, which, for painters like Wateridge, fellow Brit George Shaw, and many others, has reached the twenty-first century virtually dead on arrival. These decaying ships and smashed airplanes are, from this perspective, nothing other than the very carcasses of modernism, decomposing in some pre-global-warming nature—a potent cosmos still capable of destroying humankind instead of the other way round. In Capra’s Lost Horizon, victims of a plane crash find themselves marooned in the mountain paradise of Shangri-la; while some of the lost party insist they must find a way back to civilization, others ask, Why? Why not remain here in Eden? Likewise, Wateridge seems to ask, Why go back to tired old modernism, particularly its manifestation in late Conceptualism, when history is teeming with beautiful pictures? The ragged, crisscrossed lines of blue paint forming the ship’s seaweed-covered rigging on the very top layer of The Wreck of the Constitution may, surprisingly, recall Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, 1952, but they are separated, conceptually, not by fifty years but by a hundred—with Wateridge’s neo-romanticist paintings paradoxically predating Pollock by about a century. Yet Wateridge’s emphatic theatricality suggests that the idealized nineteenth-century landscape is as suspect as modernism for the misguided illusions of the Absolute which they share. Wateridge’s paintings are intelligent fictions on many levels; it is for this reason that they are so absorbing, rather than merely anachronistic.

Gilda Williams