New York

Paula Wilson

Bellwether

The painted, printed, and collaged pictorial extravaganzas that Paula Wilson presented in her first solo show in New York just won’t stop moving. They give the impression, rightly or wrongly, of having been produced in a kind of controlled frenzy. And since the exhibition itself, “The Stained Glass Ceiling,” was jam-packed with twenty-one works of diverse kinds and scale, most of them brilliantly and copiously colored as well as materially complex and dense with sensations, one’s first impression might have been that it could only be seen in a frenzy, by bouncing around from one striking detail to the next.

This impression was to be firmly resisted, at least if Wilson’s control over her materials and over the formal structures with which she synthesized them was to reveal its salience—and if the rather jumpy and short-lived pleasures of that first view were to give way to the calmer, more analytical ones that this work, rooted in precursors like Braque and Bearden, also has to offer. For despite the youthful energy and scrappy inventiveness abundantly displayed here, Wilson is after all a rather traditional sort of artist—but in the best sense, since she uses time-honored techniques and genres (still lifes, the figure, landscapes, interiors) as a basis for exploration, not as ends in themselves.

Wilson’s exploratory impulse is exemplified by the decorative, enigmatic Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, 2008. The right side of the work is occupied by a tabletop still life of flowers in a clear glass bowl; at least that’s how I read the green globular form: as glass through which one sees stems and greenery. I realize, though, that one could have interpreted this as an opaque green bowl, not a transparent one at all—especially since the idea that it is clear glass is apparently contradicted by the fact that the green strokes are predominantly horizontal rather than vertical, as they would be were they to represent flower stems. But I’ll stick to my perception; the bowl is depicted in a crisp, glinting, glassy manner that’s quite distinct from the soft, subdued tones Wilson uses for the flowers, the table, and the wall—but not so different from the way she has shown the stained glass window (bearing the peculiar motif of a prancing, miniskirted woman carrying an umbrella and sticking her tongue out) that takes up most of the painting’s left half. Is this the stained glass that gave the exhibition its title? Maybe. On one hand, it’s the only stained glass depicted in any of the works here, but on the other, it’s no ceiling.

This way of giving meaning with one hand while taking it back with the other—both pictorially and discursively—is basic to Wilson’s modus operandi. Her images are playful, teasing, and elusive, yet their conundrums don’t work to undermine the viewer’s sense that they are always grounded in clarity of perception. Thus my stubborn contention, despite evidence to the contrary, that what I saw in Tomorrow’s Tomorrow was a glass bowl, its tactile specificity being too vivid for me to dismiss despite rational contradictions. “Right you are if you think you are,” as Pirandello put it, and Wilson seems to be saying much the same.

Barry Schwabsky