Chicago

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2010, enamel on linen, 96 x 78".

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2010, enamel on linen, 96 x 78".

Christopher Wool

Corbett vs. Dempsey

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2010, enamel on linen, 96 x 78".

“There is always form there, whether it’s a form that can be repeated—and I’ve been trying for some time now to back away from that. I like to find something new each time, [taking up] the sum total of my experience.” This keen and succinct articulation on process, desire, and invention, delivered in a radio interview from 1996, might have issued from the mouth of Christopher Wool. Instead it is an observation on compositional method by the underground jazz musician Joe McPhee, a longtime influence on the painter. And leave it to the idiosyncratic Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey to host an exhibition that unabashedly celebrated Wool’s musical inspiration alongside McPhee’s analogously improvisatory production.

With its title taken from a portable overdubbing tape recorder that McPhee used when playing shows in the late 1960s, “Sound on Sound” featured three paintings and four drawings by Wool, a live solo performance by McPhee, and a new CD of old recordings that the jazz artist made between 1968 and 1973 (incorporating tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, toy piano, toy percussion, percussion, space organ, flute, feedback, kalimba, and Echoplex) with a cover designed by Wool. In recent years, as the Chicago-born artist has moved away from his signature text paintings, his work has been criticized as “Abstract Expressionism lite,” “half-meant bravura painting,” and the product of a “consummate stylist.” But when juxtaposed with McPhee’s music and considered in the context of American jazz, Wool’s thin and mannered abstractions expose an impressively pliable grammatical and syntactic range—perhaps one too shrewd and discriminating to be fully grasped when measured exclusively against those hoary painting standards of the New York School or of Pop.

To form the wily, sinuous lines seen in the three large paintings on view here (all works designated Untitled and dated 2009 or 2010), Wool used an airbrush. The push and pull of medium over ground that a paintbrush offers is eliminated with this tool, allowing Wool greater mobility and speed in composing and performing these large-scale paintings. With air pressure as its primary force, the device might even be thought of as a wind instrument, like McPhee’s sax, harnessing air to render a line. Large washes of gray pigment, achieved by diluting some of the sprayed-enamel marks and then wiping them out with a cloth, intersect and underlie several more pronounced spray-painted lines, which, in turn, appear suspended in the works’ directional field. The paintings thereby expose a complex palimpsest of muted veils and articulated forms (as well as, in the single 2010 painting, several boldly painted broad white brushstrokes).

As additive constructions employing direct printmaking and painting maneuvers, the four works on paper that accompany the paintings vibrate with a uniform density that the works on canvas do not possess. Large areas patterned with tiny benday dots invest these drawings with a screenlike quality, absorbing light differently than the films of wiped paint applied to the neighboring linen supports. And whereas the self-possessed nature of the paintings’ lines suggests melodic riffs, the alloverness of the drawings generates a throbbing monophonic texture. Although much of Wool’s visual vocabulary remains constant—for example, the artist employs a generally uniform line width and a largely achromatic palette—perhaps it is the overdubbing of these performative mark-making routines, the compression of space between them, and the breakneck speed at which Wool applies his media that allow him, like McPhee, to “find something new each time.”

Michelle Grabner