Thomas Wharton: Ecce Homo
Christine Frechard Gallery, Pittsburgh
September 4 through October 6, 2021
By DANIEL MAIDMAN, October 2021
“Celebration” is the word that comes to my mind when I consider Thomas Wharton’s paintings. He paints celebratory subjects: flowers, the coastline of Hawai’i, beautiful young men. His paintings overflow with joy.
For an artist of his longevity and stature, I’ve seen relatively little written about Wharton. I think the celebratory quality of his work may be the source of the problem. It falls into the same critical gap as comedy.
Critics have a tough time wrapping their heads around comedy: is one supposed to analyze the aesthetics of comedy with a straight face? Are comedies serious art? Is laughter important? One can know in one’s head that the answer to each question is the most solemn yes, and still find it impossible not to feel foolish, as a studious critic, acting the straight man to a comedy. And it is just the same with Wharton’s work. How are we supposed to write about being happy without wading in ourselves? We can’t. So let’s not.
Wharton finds color and delight in everything he considers. His color is bright and clean. Most artists instinctively shy away from cyan, but Wharton doesn’t; he employs such a full spectrum that his work sometimes takes on a strange digital edge. It has the unsettling hyperclarity of the 4K monitor.
In contrast with his ravenous appetite for color, Wharton is restrained with edge and shape. He tends toward patches of paint, simplified shapes, and razor-sharp edges. There is an obvious antecedent to this set of qualities – Georgia O’Keeffe, who took similar delight in light, color, and stylized shape. Wharton recognizes her as an influence, painting a loving tribute in Homage to O’Keeffe.
But consider how much there is of her even in work not explicitly dedicated to her. In May, for instance, Wharton resumes his own native sense of shape and detail and above all color – the entire canvas is a staccato gradient from moonlight blue to soft magenta to daylight pink. And yet, echoes of O’Keeffe’s shapes and subject matter and above all celebratory joy infuse and animate the work. I don’t mean to say that Wharton follows O’Keeffe, but rather, that they are two of a kind.
Unlike O’Keeffe, Wharton also paints the figure, mainly male nudes. There is a carnal quality to his figures, a passionate description of the flesh. Wharton’s impeccable technique, combined with his frank portrayal of craving and the craved, tends to obscure the fact that he has transformed an erotic impulse into an artistic one. He has cordoned off at least some of the acreage of a physical impulse – an impulse that begins and ends in himself and a partner, limited in space and time – and harvested the energy of that impulse, using it to form a spiritual object unlimited in space and time. He uses his own substance to make a gift to each of his viewers, lasting from the birth of his painting down through as many ages as the painting will survive.
Note, however, that if Wharton maintained his O’Keeffian paradigm when he moved into depicting the figure, then his work would resemble… Tamara de Lempicka. It’s interesting that it does not. Wharton’s threshold for detail and ambiguity in his people is much higher than in his still lives. He suits his technique to his subject. Consider a subject with greater ambiguity but less detail than the forms of the figure: clouds.
Wharton leaps again, moving into a paradigm of true softness for the indistinct transitions and boundaries of his clouds. No element of his depiction of the cloud pushes us out of the cloud. As he backgrounds detail, so he foregrounds the maze-like terrain of the clouds. They form their own enormous rooms in the sky. They catch sunlight in startling places, telling us only part of their story, as playful and secretive as Murillo’s women at the window. Our gaze wanders them, never feeling unmoored or lost – because we cannot lose sight of the sea below, with its crisp lights and darks, which reassures us of the comparative solidity of the Earth.
Wharton’s work is, to some extent, about the loss of self – the happy immersion of self in subject, the happy following of the muse by her artist. Wharton is not seeking to impose himself upon us, but to offer us, through his eye, a world of almost unbearable richness. To the extent we see him in his work, it is in his unusual sensitivity to the riches of mere being. Like all artists, he is a teacher. His work teaches us gratitude and how much there is to be grateful for. WM
Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnews, Forbes, W, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York.
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