Neil Wedman: Selected Monochromatic Paintings and Works on Paper, Part Two of Two
The grisaille world of Neil Wedman’s monochromatic paintings and drawings is as infectious as are his many bouts of seemingly uncontrolled laughter; that laugh has been one of the most salient sources of public levity in the Vancouver art scene for decades. His current solo show at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, Selected Monochrome Paintings and Works on Paper, Part Two of Two, is comprised of works in three differing media (oil on canvas paintings, India ink wash and pencil on paper, as well as conté crayon on paper) covering three typically esoteric Wedmanian subject areas: old newspapers, UFOs hovering above landscapes and erupting underwater volcanoes.
The newspaper works are actual-size reproductions of a March 1929 New York Times replicated in a grey wash so that the viewer sees the form of the page spread, but none of the content – there are no letters at all. Each bit of text is represented as a grey line saturated to correspond to the amount of ink expended on that particular line of type. The resulting effect is not unlike a newspaper page as seen by someone on the verge of going blind. The pages, on their surface appearing to be all form and no content, inhabit a zone known to us from other Wedman works: what Rudolph Arnheim once called “spatial twilight”. These works are rife with monochromatic revelations: newsworthy events do have a tonality, but they are all much more uniform than we might have thought, and the condition of cultural amnesia is perhaps represented by the past fading into a blur of grey – maybe resembling Walter Benjamin’s “documents turning into monuments”, or the reverse. Reportage as a “representation” of events is expanded here to a more interesting representation of that representation and it feeds into Wedman’s idea that his art is in part about “exposing methods of illusion”. As a naturalist of old belief systems and media forms, Wedman has a new take on the nature of the elusiveness of all media vehicles – a commentary easily extendable to today‘s media forms.
Wedman’s underwater volcanoes (in large paintings and conté drawings) remind us of the alchemy of fire and water. The only overt hint about them being oceanic is the pond-like circular ripple at the top (the surface of the sea) – it requires a sustained look to get the scenario right. These works are like pictures of Atlantis without the sunken city. They are geological as well as futuristic; there are some underwater volcanoes today, but with global warming underwater volcanoes might become the only kind we have. The images contain volcanic debris, but not lost shipping containers or other human waste, so they could also be read as historical, rather than futuristic images. In his volcano paintings, the debris – hundreds of stony shards floating in an aqueous sky – come about via dabs of rubber cement applied to the unfinished canvas, that become, when removed, the “volcanic debris”. Wedman’s knowledge of popular culture history is legendary; it’s possible the 1950s TV series Sea Hunt has had an influence on these works.
In a talk on the occasion of this exhibition Wedman revealed what anyone following his work already knew: “I have been thinking about grey for a long time.” The source material for flying saucer reports is photographic – “flying saucers exist only in photographs” – and those images, as reproduced in UFO newsletters, were blurry, low-fi attempts to visually obfuscate the nature of blobs in the sky. Wedman recreates that indeterminacy with great precision in his UFO paintings and drawings. They are done very much in the style of Georges Seurat’s monochromatic drawings, merging the history of the origins of flight with 1950’s fantasies and jokes about little green men.
Wedman has said “… rendering the work in grey tones draws your attention away from subject matter and turns it to a consideration of a flat picture plane.” For me, the reverse is also true; he draws me to his subjects, and none of his ideas would hold any interest for me if, for instance, they were painted in the style of Robert Bateman. There is no shortage of mystery in Vancouver art, and Neil Wedman is as good as anyone when it comes to the paradox of doing mystery openly.
Bill Jeffries is a freelance curator and writer living on the shores of Lost Lagoon. He dabbles with photography – more so now that he has retired from his post at Simon Fraser University.