Natalie Wadlington: Backyards
May 14 through June 17, 2021
By LAUREN LEVATO COYNE, June 2021
There are so many charming moments in Natalie Wadlington’s new series of drawings, collectively titled Backyards, now on view at Louis Buhl in Detroit. Admittedly, however, I am biased. I will seek out of a riot of dandelions in my own backyard than make the trek to any scenic tourist trap, no matter how spectacular. Spending 30 minutes watching ants or carpenter bees or robins chase worms is definitely a highlight in my day. I can only liken it to what other people feel by staring at the stars; I stare at insects and birds. I lose myself in their to and fro, in their problem solving, and in their own logic that, thankfully, has nothing to do with me.
I found myself having a similar experience in front of Wadlington’s drawings. Or, perhaps more accurately, I saw myself in her protagonists, having done similar things in similar situations. Wadlington also paints large-scale oil works on canvas dealing with the same subject matter as her drawings—our everyday and often fraught relationships with the non-human world—but I do not have the same experience with her paintings as I have with her drawings. There is a detailed tenderness to the drawings that captures the complicated joy and confusion of being in the world. She is specially attuned to the absurdity, fear, and wonder that sometimes exist all in the same moment.
Cat and Squirrel is a study in attempted systems of containment with the human as stage director who, though omnipresent, is nowhere to be found. Human puts ice and water in a glass and cat absurdly shoves its face into the glass to reach a drink. Human fills bird feeder with seed and squirrel swings wildly from it trying to reach the sunflower seeds. Human puts scallions in a windowsill jar filled with water and the scallions roots reach for invisible soil in a mimic of the roots from a single tree out back in the yard. The dishes are clean and stacked in the cupboard, the sink is scrubbed and dry, and it’s clear everybody is trying really hard.
In Girl Saving Bee the girl is recognizable and she too is trying. Exploring around drainage ditches is a common enough activity for suburban kids. So is saving a precious bee from drowning. Yet the unintended consequence is the onlooking fish has lost its easy lunch for her well-meaning heart. But should that fish even be in that drainage stream? Isn’t that a salmon? Does it matter anymore where things “belong?” Did it ever?
Though I recognize Wadlington is operating in a contemporary, feminist lineage born from cubist painting, when I see her work I often think of Martin Ramirez’s. Horse is an obvious example from this specific collection, but I also see it in Girl with Tire. Perhaps feel it is a more accurate word. There is a decorated anxiety that Ramirez’s work produces and it is the same with Wadlington. A figure is trapped in a landscape, sometimes awkwardly, and crammed into at least one corner by a pattern or decorative element. Unlike many of her paintings that have employed this strategy, Girl with Tire is at ease in her cramped surroundings. Or perhaps I’m set at ease by her trappings—her braided hair that runs parallel to the braid in her cable-knit sweater, the languid crossing over motif of that same sweater mimicking her more tightly crossed legs, the inner ear and the inner life of the tire. And this tire is full of life. For as quaint and comfortable as the girl-holding-a-leaf seems, those water-striders are remarkably agile and efficient predators. They are no danger to humans but they are quite deadly for other insects and this tire is a perfect feeding ground. There are approximately 1,700 identified species of water-striders, but not in this girl’s world. Here are only these three and her and all the interwoven motifs between them. There is a repetition of self inside the world she so curiously considers: spreading hands that look like leaves, round eyes and round tires, the living world holding space and closing in all at once. WM
Lauren Levato Coyne is an American artist and writer based in Detroit. Lauren’s drawings and mixed media works have appeared on more than a dozen book and journal covers. She earned her MFA in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art and her degrees in writing and women’s studies from Purdue University and in political journalism from Georgetown University. She has taught and lectured at The Field Museum of Natural History, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia State University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago among others. Find her on instagram @laurenlevatocoyne or online at laurenlevatocoyne.com.view all articles from this author