I posted a piece about painter Brian Wyers November 29th, and knew I’d have more to say. This is a continuation.
I am again fascinated by a Wyers painting that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Perhaps painters or art-critics would look and be more blasé. I think it’s every bit as wacky as the fish-bicycle painting I spoke of last time, possessed of a surreal quality, although I feel that the use of that word is a cop-out because there’s so much more to this painting than just taking us out of this world and into another. Perhaps I should describe it first.
This painting is, first and foremost, a kind of tour de force. Any painters reading this likely know better than I what constitutes a real technical achievement, or in other words, whether this is a genuine achievement, or just a painting that managed to impress me, who is perhaps not sophisticated enough to know. Virtuosity is sometimes an illusion created by a level of sophistication –or the lack thereof—in the viewer. Just yesterday I was playing a Scarlatti Sonata, lots and lots of fast notes, that elicited a comment of admiration from someone who didn’t realize this was precisely what Scarlatti was aiming for (and it wasn’t especially difficult to play). Sometimes a viewer in a particular place/context may be impressed by something that would not impress those in another place; if you go to another historical era, the skill level is so different that the standard for “excellence” is substantially different, the unspoken benchmarks of the spectacular for the audience having changed many times over. And so, after saying this, I believe this painting should be recognized as spectacular even if the average viewer might not get that they’re looking at something magical, nor even be aware that their perceptions were being teased.
The painting is called “To Gilda”. I had no idea what the title signified until I asked Wyers, who explained that it’s short for “to gild a lily.” It reminds me of one of those cute song names by Frank Zappa such as “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution”, where the title doesn’t really tell you anything (no offense Frank: wherever you are)
In the foreground (back to Wyers’ painting) we are either looking at an immense white flower, or perhaps a normal sized flower in such an intimate close-up as to seem to be impossibly close to your face, foreshortened by the uncommon perspective. Behind the flower? A wall with gold-leaf wallpaper decorated with flowers. In some respects the wallpaper is banal, something we’ve seen before and perhaps never noticed. For some reason Wyers has juxtaposed his outrageous white flower with the wallpaper. Some reason? It’s a brilliant choice, as we look at this super-flower in front of the floral illustration on the gold-leaf wallpaper. By using the gold-leaf Wyers creates a really bizarre effect of the light, illuminating the room indirectly. Any light bounces off that wallpaper in the most lurid fashion. And that wall’s surface is so hyper-real that one can feel its smoothness. The effect on my eye is what blew me away, the unexpected illumination it brought into the room because the gold leaf seems to amplify the light.
We are left in the curious position of sharing the subjectivity of that white flower, as if the flower were itself looking at the wallpaper and critiquing the two-dimensional ersatz flowers. Curiously, we’re looking over the flower’s shoulder: which shouldn’t be possible.
A flower with subjectivity?
I am reminded of a moment in the Muppets Christmas (from many many years ago), where Rowlf the Dog (from The Muppet Show) meets Sprocket, Doc’s pet dog (from Fraggle Rock). Whereas Rowlf talks like a human and plays the piano all Sprocket can do is bark, being a slightly more realistic puppet than Ralph. In a magically absurd moment Rawlf stares into the barking Sprocket’s barking face to which the cynical Rawlf replies, “yeah: bow wow”, a meeting of delicious absurdity. Just as dogs of different orders met one another in Jim Henson’s worlds, so too with the encounter of plants in Wyers’ painting.
And if that weren’t enough subjectivity –from the flower among the plants– I want to segue into a more human realm for two more paintings that are becoming a recurring pattern for Wyers, because there is at least a third painting using this trope… but although i know if it, i have not seen it so let’s just focus on these two for now. In each case he puts something intimate and perhaps even psychological on a kind of ideal beach. I think of these as self-portraits. One is a picture of a girl dancing; one is a picture of a person in ballet slippers (possibly a girl, but it’s difficult to be certain of the gender when we see only a little bit of him/her). Even if both of them are actually females you may think it odd of me that I would call these self-potraits given that Brian is a guy. But I am speaking in terms of paintings capturing a drama of the psyche or the soul, and those don’t entail a precise painting of our physical reality. No, the internal drama requires the imagination to portray what’s happening inside. While I don’t think that’s what Wyers thought he was doing that’s how I see them. I’d compare them to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, where he sets six songs alternately between male and female voice; just because three of the six call for a female voice doesn’t mean that they’re any less about Mahler’s soul. No, he brings out something different in the presence of the female voice, but it’s still essentially him.
This example –not a digression but an illustration– is the fourth song, “On Beauty”; the woman’s voice first situates us in a quiet place among girls observing flowers, but then a bunch of boys arrive on horseback about three minutes into the piece, a violent eruption in every sense of the word.
Just as Mahler wants us to experience both yin and yang, i think it’s the same for Wyers.
“Trip the light fantastic” shows part of a dancing figure. I find this to be a very inspiring image. While the space might be a beach I’ve seen sometime –perhaps Georgian Bay?—the choreography seems more internal and hypothetical than genuine. This is the sort of image that we’re told to picture when we confront something painful, when we seek to find our way through a struggle. We don’t see the complete girl, encouraging us to enter into her process as she dances, and as a result, to engage in her subjectivity as she dances. Banal as it sounds, the image is wonderfully inspiring. She dances without any sign of an audience, nor of music. Does there have to be a real beach? I don’t think so. And there doesn’t have to be a girl either, as I believe this is really Wyers’ spirit in the painting. As with Gilda, Wyers is again playing a bit in his title, as the word “light” has at least two meanings.
“Skywalker” is the name of the other incomplete figure on a beach, a very small part of a tightrope walker, balancing with exquisite care. The landscape reminds me of “Trip the Light Fantastic”, the same beach of dreams. For me, both the dancer and the tightrope walker enact internal dramas, evoking subtle questions. I think we saw similar landscapes in the meditative last portions of Mallick’s film Tree of Life, as we did in the early portions of Wenders Wings of Desire. I think it’s fair to say that these compositions are exploring a well-established trope, a kind of spiritual landscape. Because of the way the images are composed (in the films and in Wyers’ paintings) we seem to be viewing something abstract or something on another plane, something that is as playful as it is profound. While we are outside for both paintings, we are also inside: as we are reflecting upon something internal, subjective, and if you’ll excuse the Jungian overtones of this usage: archetypal.
Did Wyers know that we’d have this experience looking at his figures on the beach? I have to think so.