Photograph courtesy of Museum Blue
New Mexico-based artist Paula Wilson’s latest show at the artist-run project space, Museum Blue, features hybrid paintings on muslin, plus a video installation. Combining acrylic and oil with collage and printmaking techniques, Wilson depicts a variety of imagery that draws from traditional painting genres and historical influences that range from Matisse to Bearden. Wilson sublimates these traditions into a mythological narrative that is uniquely hers, often conflating decoration with partial, androgynous female figures. Motifs like overripe bananas, stained glass windows, butt cheeks, and faces on butt cheeks reappear from one work and into the next—from painting to painting, from painting to video. Tacked to the wall, Wilson’s paintings hang like tapestries and are densely packed with bright colors, patterns, and texture. She uses materials with cavalier abandon, and her paint handling is loose and playful and incorporates a variety of techniques such as painterly monotype backgrounds, fluid shapes, lyrical gestures, and impasto. Collaged elements are cut and ironed on with an intentional awkwardness, and it is hard not to think of the recent exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs at MoMA.
One of the most prominent motifs is Wilson’s deliberate focus on butts. They make a pervasive appearance in her paintings and video, and are suggested in the show’s apt title, Back it Up. In the painting “Delf Bottom,” a central blue figure stands against a sienna desert landscape. The figure’s color is coincidentally similar to the gallery’s vibrant blue floor. Like many of Wilson’s figures, this one seems divided into upper and lower sections. Blue ass cheeks are covered with multiple eyes, transforming a complacent behind into an anthropomorphic, surreal creature that dauntingly gazes back at us. A mouth is spread into a languid smile across the back of the thighs, and a sliver of cloth is collaged on, functioning as the negative space between the thighs while also giving the smile a gap between its front teeth. The top half of the figure is a composite of still life objects—depictions of Delft pottery decorated with faces or landscapes, and ornately framed landscape paintings that sometimes go past the edge of the muslin substrate. An occasional rogue penis or derrière are interspersed within this cluster. Wilson imbues purposeful ambiguity, and it is unclear whether these objects and forms are part of the figure, or if a human torso is concealed beneath. Likewise, it is unclear if the eyes are part of the figure’s physical being or a ritualistic adornment painted onto the flesh.
These ambiguities are further complicated in Salty & Fresh, a looped video with three nearly identical segments. Salty & Fresh plays on a small flat-screen TV placed on a white pedestal at the back of Museum Blue’s L-shaped space. Next to the pedestal, unfinished or discarded paintings rest in a crumpled pile on the floor. In the video, Wilson becomes a monumental, goddess-like figure standing in a large body of water. She wears a long, vibrantly patterned dress fabricated with a similar sensibility to her paintings. Standing on stilts or some similar structure underneath, she is easily twice her normal height. She holds a giant palette and staff-like paintbrush and looms above three other figures that, like the figure in Delf Bottom, are part object, part being. These figures evoke a sense of misplaced classical antiquity. From the waist up they wear vessel-like, fabric costumes with arms exposed and poised like the handles of Greek vases. Naked from the waist down, each one has a vacant eyed, Mesopotamian-like face painted on their bottom, and ass cheeks are again personified. Using her laughably long brush, Wilson begins painting and makes minor adjustments to these faces. Mythological antiquity is debunked when the camera zooms out, and reveals a group of bourgeois yuppies enjoying a picnic on the shore, like a 21st- century Luncheon on the Grass. Surprisingly, within this context they are the ones who seem bizarre. Eating sandwiches and sipping white wine, they nonchalantly take photos of the ritual with their iPhones. They act like buffoons, committing a faux pas as they voyeuristically intrude upon a seemingly sacred ceremony of butt painting.
Wilson draws inspiration from a variety of traditions and processes and imparts them with humor, energy, and sensuality. Her material handling is intuitive; her imagery is beguiling. She re-constructs genres. Personal motifs are mixed in. Through the process of making, new histories are formed.
Wilson is currently the Louis D. Beaumont Artist in Residence at Washington University's Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts; her faculty page is here. Museum Blue is located on the fourth floor of City Museum, 750 North 16th Street, Suite 414. Intaglio: Juried by Ruth Lingen opens April 17, with a public reception on Saturday, April 25 from 7 to 9 p.m. Museum Blue project space is open by appointment only. For more information, go to museumblue.com.