Edward Walton Wilcox: Sacred Intention
Merry Karnowsky Gallery
June 21 to July 19, 2014
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, AUG. 2014
If the notion of intention -- half the title of this recent exhibit of paintings and related sculptural pieces by Edward Walton Wilcox -- has significance in the context of any artist’s work, it has even more profound meaning with regard to the work of this artist. However invested in looking, the viewer can only hope to infer an artist’s intention. Wilcox leads us, offering many clues to what his intention might be, through themes both haunting and haunted, a modulated palette, subject matter redolent of fantasy dreamscapes, or perhaps nightmares, and an exquisite degree of attention to presentation and detail.
What is most striking, especially on first encounter, is that these are much more than conventional paintings. Rather than compositions rendered on predictable two-dimensional surfaces like canvas, they are multi-media works, incorporating carpentry, found objects and elements of sculpture. The Black Flock, (2014, Oil on panel, 7 X 23 inches, hand made wooden shelf) is first a beautifully beveled oval-shaped piece of wood, mounted on a wooden ledge. Second, painted on the surface of the wood, is a delicate rural landscape and sky with birds -- serene except for a flock of black birds foreboding something dark; the scene is about to be disrupted.
In an artist’s talk during the course of the exhibition, Wilcox discussed the genesis of his ideas, offering surprising insight into a creative process that seems almost counter-intuitive. Rather than starting each new piece with an initial premise, Wilcox begins with his own organic and intuitive approach. In fact, he embarks on each new project without a definitive intention at all as to what it will become. Instead of starting with the painting, his concepts begin with the creation of an object. Having grown up helping with his father’s woodwork projects, the artist explained that he goes back to carpentry first. “The work of art is first an object,” he said. For Wilcox, the object takes shape before the idea is formed. “I don’t like to map it out,” he said. “It’s all stream of consciousness.”
If this approach could be considered somewhat improvised, that is not at all apparent in the finished work. Executed with meticulous care and attention to detail, his paintings gleam from beneath a smooth veneer. Wilcox extrapolates from a repertoire of recurring themes and subjects -- flocks of black birds, skeletons, cloudy skies, denuded trees, architectural ruins, and various crumbled remains of human existence -- that seem to flow together, producing an ominous mystique that lingers, indelibly permeating his images. The individual pieces are connected, as if part of an intricate ongoing narrative. At some point in the process, the concept gels in his mind. Carefully considered, even if not fully conceived at the outset, the artist’s vision is ultimately realized with impeccable clarity and craftsmanship.
“Usually the title occurs to me halfway through the painting. It’s kind of like a forward/backward thing for me,” Wilcox said. He then sets out to procure various materials with which to embellish the piece, like the elaborate bent twigs and other organic materials he affixes to the frames, creating a literal framework and context within which to view the enclosed painting. Skulls and bones predominate his imagery. Evidence of decay notwithstanding, these works, encased in their magical frames and wrought from the artist’s personal iconography, achieve their own pleasing harmony.
Wilcox grew up in Florida, where he began studying art at an early age. The ornate Palm Beach mansions just across the bridge made a strong impression and became a lasting influence on his work. He studied fine art in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Abstraction was the thing, so I never learned how to draw. Everyone was throwing paint, even the teachers were throwing paint,” he said. Rejecting what was going on around him, the artist began exploring realism. “I started doing atmospheric things, Rococo-esque landscapes,” he said. His teachers were surprised. “Everything in our community was deconstructed,” Wilcox said. “I wanted to construct.” Since then, he has gone on to do so with deliberation, manifesting atmospheric and evocative works laced with grim (and Grimm) innuendo, his meticulous technique driven by elegant precision.
Pale Blue Dreamer (2014, Mixed media, 36 X 9.5 X 10 inches) is a bas relief and somewhat sculptural piece mounted on the wall, in which a glass eye stares out from a white skull, decorated with white branches. The entire piece is painted white, uniting the seemingly disparate components. A glowing light permeates Predator, (2014, Oil on panel, handmade wood frame, 60 X 17 X 11 inches). This small tondo of a sky and naked tree tops, expands beyond the confines of its circumference into an elaborate white frame with a tiny carved owl and protruding branches which point skyward. Candy Mountain (2014, Oil on panel, handmade wooden shelf, 19-inch tondo) exudes an aura of fantasy steeped in darkness, like a scene from The Lord of the Rings. In it, Wilcox has restricted himself to a moody palette of umbers, sepias and washed out blues. A pathway, trees, a mountain and the ubiquitous black birds swirl as a skeleton reclines in a rotted tree stump in the foreground.
What of the term, sacred -- the other half of the title Sacred Intention? While there is no attached dogma, and Wilcox doesn’t moralize or attempt to preach, there is a pervasive quasi-religious undercurrent, expressed as hints of symbolism in his work. Treasures in Heaven (2014, Oil on panel and handmade wood frame, 58 X 31 X 8 inches) is a triptych defined by an ornate three-leafed hinged gable piece, like a religious icon or altarpiece, the frame painted white. On a ledge in front of the painting is a sculpture of a man in a boat. Wilcox explains that all the things in the boat are meant to symbolize the man’s earthly possessions, with the implied biblical premise: “If you row steadily -- live a good life -- you’ll get to heaven.” Heaven and Hell are omnipresent, always looming both in the background and foreground of the work. Driven to explore the unknown, seeking a divine truth, Wilcox depicts an otherworldly realm and draws us in, like a book we can’t stop reading -- even if it scares us.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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