Art Forum: Donald Kuspit on Tim Wilson

Arguing that avant-garde art was “behind the times,” Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that motion pictures appeared on the sociocultural scene at roughly the same time as Cubism did in the early twentieth century, but that cinema’s “techniques of multiple perspective, varying focus, and tricks of cutting”—bringing the awareness that different aspects of an object could be seen at the same time—were derived from, and an elaboration of, filmic innovations. The movies, Hobsbawm argued, are a more sophisticated and communicative form of art by dint of their technological ingenuity, well beyond anything that “advanced” painting could ever offer. Like Buridan’s ass, Tim Wilson seems stuck in a situation of undecidability: “Between Either and Or,” as the title of his exhibition at Nathalie Karg Gallery implies; that is, either film or painting. Though he’s chosen the latter as his medium, the subject matter of the lovely, moodily rendered works in this show was all derived from film stills.

 

Wilson’s paintings—all oil on paper mounted on linen stretched over panels—were modestly sized: None were taller than two feet, and the majority of them were roughly twelve inches wide. Each one either depicted a regal atmospheric still life or provided a glimpse into some uninhabited but marvelously furnished interior. Perfume (all works cited, 2021) is a portrayal of a desolate-looking dressing table in an airless room, bathed in satiny oranges, golds, and umbers. Atop the vanity sit a menagerie of scents and an eerily sentinel-like mirror. Stairway Ipresents a rather baroque version of the titular architectural feature. The steps are upholstered with crimson carpeting, and the elaborately carved newel at the stairwell’s entry is crowned by a heavy ormolu lamp. Perhaps the image is based on a scene from an old Hammer horror film or on some weepy eighteenth-century period piece.

 

An air of luxury pervades all of Wilson’s pictures. His chambers are high-class personages in their own right—their lonely appointments eternally in place and immovably dignified. The spectator is an honored guest, a transient yet implicit presence, in each setting. Wilson invites us into his regal compartments by way of their hues and grandeur: Sundry mirrors wait for us to appear in them, bottles of recherché fragrances demand to be worn, and the paintings within Wilson’s paintings ask that we carefully scrutinize them, too. If art offers us the illusion of what historian Sigfried Giedion calls “the eternal present,” then Wilson’s work places us (or, rather, abandons us) there. The temporal space of a Wilson painting offers up a specious present or a “short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible,” as philosopher William James would say.

 

Wilson uses film stills the way portrait painters use faces—as excuses for making a picture. The artist is giving us access to his inner life, just as portraitists offer us theirs when they projectively identify with their subjects. Wilson’s tableaux also set the stage for the sensuous soft-focus handling of his chosen medium; he eschews the glossy hyperchromatic facture of film, the warts-and-all vividness of HD digital. His oils seem antique, otherworldly. I believe he is, in certain ways, subverting film by appropriating it—for him, the effort involved in making a painting is more to the artistic point than all the technical wizardry and logistical drama that come with the creation of a cinematic work. Like Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, Wilson is drawn to intimate spaces, private scenes of the good life far from the public eye. That he is a romantic rather than a realist is confirmed by the fact that his objects are emblematically marvelous—bouquets of flowers, brocade wallpapers, and all those mirrors. Wilson’s images show the expressive, evocative power of paint and color when applied with exquisite subtlety—something the naively materialistic Hobsbawm would have never understood.

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April 10, 2021