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Ben Woolfitt: Rhythms and Series at AGO

Installation view, Ben Woolfitt: Rhythms and Series, July 21, 2021 – Feb. 21, 2022, Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo © AGO.

Ben Woolfitt: Rhythms and Series

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

July 21, 2021 through February 21, 2022

Co-curated by Kenneth Brummel and Alexa Greist

BY SIBA KUMAR DAS, October 2021 

Toronto- and New York-based artist Ben Woolfitt invariably draws when he starts his day, staying as close as possible to the internal world from which he has arisen. Employing a process enabled by frottage, a technique developed by surrealist Max Ernst, he metamorphoses memories of his dreams the night before into graphite and silver or aluminum leaf images set off against white paper that he darkens to light gray or charcoal gray with graphite pigment rubbed onto the surface. Viewed in conjunction with jottings that he makes on the margins, these images are at once emotionally expressive and lyrically beautifully. Excavated by dreams and other means from sedimented thoughts and feelings embedded in him by experiences often painful, the art he creates evokes in you a transcendence that is akin to the “breakthrough” (Durchbruch) Theodor Adorno discussed in a course on aesthetics he gave in 1958/59 and developed further in a book on Mahler. You feel free, buoyant, exalted. 

The purpose of creativity, according to the poets and artists who forged the Surrealist movement in the early 1920s, was to leverage the powers of the unconscious mind. Woolfitt’s drawing process is a contemporary method of achieving a similar result. Fortuitous though the conjunction may be, it is interesting that the AGO show of his drawings is partially running parallel with Surrealism Beyond Borders, a Metropolitan Museum show (October 11, 2021-January 30, 2022) aimed at a broader understanding of Surrealism. What the show illuminates is a reality that deserves wider recognition: so protean was Surrealism and so universal its appeal, it achieved global reach. While Woolfitt is no Surrealist, he is taking in a new direction a strand of Surrealist practice at a time when Surrealism continues to influence artistic and literary practice. 

In a 2019 monograph on Woolfitt’s drawings, Donald Kuspit suggests that when Woolfitt draws every morning he is undoing through “the dream space of his drawings” the damage done to him in his childhood. He is thereby not only aestheticizing his dream images; he is transcending them. The question arises: how does this therapeutic transcendence in the artist create the other transcendence discussed earlier? How does it produce Adorno’s durchbruch in the viewer? 

Ben Woolfitt, it is early in the morning, May 8,2020. Silver leaf, oil pastel, and graphite on paper, 35.56 x 27.94 cm. Courtesy AGO, Toronto.

The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition displays 37 works on paper, four drawing books, and one painting. Examples from his fifteen distinct but overlapping series of drawings are on show. Works are wall mounted and in free-standing custom glass cases, their intimate scale accentuated by the dark slate gray walls, warm wood floors, and spotlighting.  

Though the drawings’ intimate scale invites close looking, it’s instructive to walk back from the aforementioned walls and take a more panoramic view taking in multiple drawings (see the accompanying installation view), for then you discern clearly the debt Woolfitt owes Antoni Tapies, who too came under Surrealism’s spell before going his own way. To make his acclaimed ‘matter paintings’, Tapies used sand, dust, wood and other base materials. Woolfitt makes tracings from crumpled paper, paper folds, wires, screens, bamboo branches and leaves before applying graphite across the drawing paper’s surface and then using sheets of silver or aluminum foil to fill spaces before rubbing them down. By synthesizing his materiality with gestures and symbols, Tapies evoked a metaphysical world. You see likewise Woolfitt’s gestural marks forming a distinct language of signs and symbols, which together with the drawings’ interplay of darkness and light, make you think of a transcendent realm. 

In June 2020, the two co-curators of the AGO exhibition sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with Woolfitt and his partner, Sandra van Iderstine. In an introduction to the interview transcript, the exhibition catalogue’s principal text, Brummel and Greist suggest that Woolfitt’s approach to drawing constitutes a signifying practice as defined by the psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva. The result is an effect that is “novel, poetic, and potentially revolutionary.” This, I submit, is the very transformation that catalyzes Woolfitt’s achievement of a transcendent breakthrough. 

Ben Woolfitt, a moment, Jan. 19, 2020. Silver leaf, oil pastel, & graphite on paper, 35.56 x 55.88 cm. Courtesy AGO, Toronto.

In her book of essays on depression and melancholia, Black Sun, Kristeva asks, “Can the beautiful be sad? Is beauty inseparable from the ephemeral and hence from mourning?” It is perhaps because similar questions arise in looking at Woollfitt’s drawings that, in 2011, in conjunction with a solo exhibition of his drawings in Tokyo, a Japanese art gallery owner, Chihiro Tsutsui, said of his work that she saw in it “a stillness that can also be seen in Japanese art.” She said she discerned in his drawings “a sensibility that feels very Japanese to me.” In similar vein, in an essay for a catalogue that accompanied the 2011 show, Dennis Reid said that “the experience of [Woolfitt’s] drawings always strikes me as being akin to the more personal forms of Chinese and Japanese painting and in particular the works of Japanese Zen masters.” If you look at the photographs of individual drawings accompanying this article, they’ll probably make you think of the Japanese poetic form called haiku. Seeing the drawings in real life, they will heighten your awareness of the beauty that lies embedded in the ephemerality of the world. Beauty, in the Japanese aesthetic mind, lies in the very evanescence that is the source of human sorrow, and access to this truth is the essence of enlightenment. Standing in front of a Woolfitt drawing, you may, momentarily, experience such enlightenment (or a semblance of it) and be transported. 

The jottings that Woolfitt adds to his drawings are an integral part of his works. Yet he inserts them at the end of his drawing process. Important though they are, he writes them so quickly and spontaneously they may give the impression sometimes of being incomplete. He says, “It is not important for everyone to read it all.” We may think of his writings as carrying the speedy, carefree fluidity that Chinese and Japanese artists attained with calligraphy under the influence of Zen ideas, enabling the written characters to become expressive tools in their own right. Woolfitt’s jottings are not poetry so much as prosody, what Julia Kristeva calls “the language beyond language” that brings into play “the rhythms and alliterations of semiotic processes.” The AGO show tells us that Woolfitt’s drawings incarnate movement towards a new aesthetic language. WM


Siba Kumar Das

Siba Kumar Das is a former United Nations official who writes about art. He served the U.N. Development Program in New York and several developing countries. He now lives in the U.S., splitting his time between New York City and upstate New York. He has published articles on artists living in the Upper Delaware Valley, and is presently focusing on art more globally. Recent articles have appeared in dArt International, Arte Fuse, and Artdaily.com. 

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