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Versed in Diversity
By David Brickman

Selected Works by Bill Wilson
Firlefanz Gallery, through May 24

The name 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 extended.

Nobody 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.

Just 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.

The roughly 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 work.

Wilson, 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.

An expert 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.

Of the 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.

The still 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.

Other 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.

Other 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 the exhibition.

Other 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.

A group 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.

Finally, 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.

A compositional 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.

Taken 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.

Instead, 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?”

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