of the newly inaugurated Firlefanz Gallery comes from the
German word for whimsical, but if it meant “eclectic” it would
be just as appropriate. When the narrow half-basement space
opened in March with a smorgasbord of one work each by about
70 artists (myself included), the standard of extreme variety
and good old-fashioned fun was set. Now, with Firlefanz’s
first solo exhibition, by media omnivore Bill Wilson, it is
but Wilson could have met the challenge of filling this garishly
colored and funkily furnished space with a display nearly
as diversified (and as high-quality) as the one that preceded
it. The idea that a solo artist can work so skillfully in
so many media flies in the face of conventional critical wisdom.
Indeed, this diversity is Wilson’s great strength—and could
be his biggest downfall.
to categorize the media included is a job: oil on canvas;
oil on copper; pencil on paper; oil on carved wood; oil on
marble; oil on shovels; ink wash and colored pencil on Mylar;
watercolor on Mylar; ink, watercolor and gold paint on paper;
mixed media on metal; pond algae on paper; and a leather “shrunken
head,” complete with teeth and hair, thrown in for good measure.
55 pieces in the show span the years 1976 to 2003, but the
majority of the work dates from 1988 forward, and a lot of
it comes from the last couple of years. So, it’s not a retrospective,
but a quirky-yet-representative sample of relatively recent
who is 72 years old and battling Parkinson’s disease, remains
youthfully exuberant in his approach to artmaking. The core
concerns, as expressed here, are abundance and sensuality,
with a big dollop of playful spirituality on top.
woodcarver and extraordinary painter, Wilson can manage near-
photographic realism, and often does; just as often he goes
off into a realm of magical realism or expressionism, but
I think the best work remains the more polished. That said,
the pond-algae pieces are quite a hoot—and as loose conceptually
as the unlikely medium would suggest.
six pieces in the show dated 2003, five are still lifes of
fruit, and the sixth is a collaged figurative painting titled
Annunciation. Unlike most paintings of this genre,
Wilson’s Annunciation presents a naked Mary, haloed
in gold but also glowing with gold across her supple body;
Jesus is present as a stiff, pale cartoonish figure alone
on a small, ripped piece of raw canvas. He is overshadowed
by his mother’s sensual swoon in a tropical place, where the
white dove of the Holy Ghost cuddles against her torso.
lifes are equally frank in their sensuality, whether depicting
a pear, orange or Ugli fruit. A smallish one of a plum makes
obvious the analogy to swollen vulva; its juxtaposition with
a 1995 carving titled Tall Woman, in which a forked
stick of wood has been transformed into a ripe woman’s lustily
rendered hips and sexual parts, leaves no doubt as to Wilson’s
thoughts when confronting the plum.
carvings do equal justice to figures and hand tools. By retaining
part of the original wood, bark and all, and allowing the
metal tools or fleshy torsos to emerge from it as though caught
in the act of birth, Wilson does a marvelous bit of conjuring.
In addition to his remarkably facile handling of the medium,
he makes maximum use of the gestures inherent in the original
branches to create works that are expressive and witty.
works in the show also portray tools, including two small
1976 pencil drawings (Adjustable Pliers and Putty
Knife, the earliest pieces in the show) and two 1988 drawings
in ink and colored pencil on Mylar that depict a cleaver and
a sickle. Like the carvings, these life-size tours-de-force
of technical mastery and innovation combine gesture with tight
rendering to mesmerize the viewer. They are my favorites in
works on Mylar date from last year, and they display the same
wonderful control that allows any simple subject to take on
a life of its own, as with a 7-inch-by-11-inch study titled
Nude, in which ink wash and colored pencil float lovingly
below the surface of the delicate yet forceful drawing.
of larger 2002 Mylar drawings depicting four great figures
in the history of art (Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Lautrec and El
Greco) is somewhat less successful, perhaps due to scale,
perhaps because the drawings are framed in black duct tape.
Even so, the disembodied heads staring straight out at the
viewer do have an impact and an expressiveness that is uniquely
Wilson’s, and they are sure to captivate many.
among the most intriguing objects in the show is a painting
titled Five Leaf Clover of uncertain date (it is signed
twice, with two or possibly three dates visible, but the label
says 1986). What’s fascinating about the piece is that it
combines several of the styles seen in the show into one piece,
making it almost a compendium of late-era Wilson.
conundrum, Clover features a realistic tabletop still
life of fruit and vegetables hovering above a psychedelically
colored still life of a plant stalk. Floating illusionistically
over the surface of the painting are a graffiti arrow in day-glo
green and a sort of ring-shaped stain in fluorescent orange.
Collaged into the middle of it are the titular plant leaves
and a postcard or photograph of a Japanese interior with a
tiny, Dali-like nude figure painted into it.
all together, this work of art makes no sense—it doesn’t coalesce
in any one style or indicate a point of view. Unfortunately,
due to its uncanny diversity, the Wilson show as a whole runs
the risk of leading us to the same conclusion.
it would be better viewed as the ongoing revelry of an artist
so open and so full of celebratory gusto for all life’s offerings
that he can’t be bothered stopping to select, organize or
sum up. He seems to be saying, “Take it all, and enjoy it.”
To which I gladly reply, “Why not?”