Catalogue Essay for the exhibition:
David Wolfe: Nature Magnified, 2005
Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
There's the story of the college freshman shown a slide of Dürer's The Hare (1502) and when asked its period said "contemporary." This great rabbit leap forward raises the question of a "styleless" representation that transcends "period." There is a history of meticulous depiction that seems to subscribe to a mutual "code," one immediately deciphered by the spectator, in which the exactitude of representation is matched by the exactitude of perception. The works that perform this trick are generally small, selling the idea that what you're looking at is a quota of reality, presented without intervention or prejudice. "Dürer's Rabbit," if we can give this phenomenon a name, has many siblings, including Ruskin's dead birds (dead birds, for some reason, fly easily across cultures). Dürer also provided us with another "styleless" simulacrum - his patch of grassy sod, in which every blade can be counted. That depiction also started something, including enlargement of the intimate. Gustave Doré, more known for his illustrations of the Bible and Paradise Lost, entered the floral undergrowth equipped with microscopic vision and changed the ratio of spectator to the work. His paintings are large enough to be enterable. The small work seems to rub an instinct we all have - to grasp, hold, and ingest the miniature. The spectator is turned into a kind of discreet consumer. But the enlargement of such close-up intimacies gives an unsettling feeling that you are looking through both ends of the telescope at once.
All of the above applies to the art of David Wolfe, who steps over his subject every day. He makes paintings of patches of earth, casually noticed and then realized with telescopic intensity by taking pains. But where has the practice come from? I've known David for at least two decades, during much of which we worked together on the undergrowth of the bureaucratic Washington landscape, the sort of thing that trains your patience, which, when tested, was frequently mitigated by David's incomparable wit. I knew his real work, his collage paintings, which turned his government job into a necessary hobby. I remember clipped and torn photographs slipping under and over the surface in flurries of expertly handled paint. Those paintings had a pedigree, throwing a backward glance at Rauschenberg's extravagance, and then forging ahead over difficult ground where David's own verbal wit would be realized in incongruous juxtapositions. Wit, after all, is about the incongruous, surprise suddenly discharged. That nimbleness was always in David's talk and in his fingers. Still, it came as a surprise to see what, for the past five years, he has been devoting himself to. Devote is the word. For an unyielding tenacity and a punishing artistic conscience have dictated these paintings. Paintings of what? Wildflowers in their natural habitat, their botanical accuracy certified (though that's the least of it) and, as I say, dictated as much as painted. These paintings need to be read as well as seen. Like a page of text, every surface has been "thought on," which is precisely what one kind of fine painting does, transferring consciousness to a flat surface that then does its own thinking. These paintings are so intense that you can hear them thinking. And what are flowers thinking?
Flower painting is a great tradition, often of late situated in a suburb of a painter's oeuvre. But you'd be surprised how many artists have turned a sidelong glance on flowers. Even a master of geometric nuances like Ellsworth Kelly takes time off to describe sinuous stems tilting and fighting their leaves. Here arises an important distinction. Most flowers in the history of art are cut, corpses with the blush of life, posed singly or bundled together for painterly execution. Nothing sinister about this. Audubon killed his birds before he painted them. The aristocratic depictions of Pierre Joseph Redoute, models of poetic accuracy, are as elegant as fashion models, their imagined perfume mingling with the rosewater of the royal court. Any flower, snipped from its stem, was priveleged to be painted by Redoute.
But David Wolfe's flowers, like those of John Alexander, are of another order. They are in their natural habitat, rooted, growing, minding their own business as Wolfe goes about his. Cut flowers are on their way out the door. Flowers growing outdoors, particularly when surprised by Wolfe, remain untouched, undisturbed. Happened upon, they are there after the artist has gone away. The informality of Wolfe's natural flowerscapes is refreshing. They unburden flowers of the didactic tasks assigned to them from Goethe to the great Swiss botanist, Agassiz. For Thoreau and his colleagues, flowers enacted in little the life cycle of the observer. Thus they became metaphors, providing symbols for fidelity, purity, or passion (note, for example, the Shakespeare garden near the Brooklyn Museum). Even issues of class have entered the floral universe, from "regnant" roses and orchids to "modest" daisies. The symbolic echoes of flowers are wittily sounded in Peter Hutchinson's photo-collages. But Wolfe's flowers don't speak of metaphors. They are decidedly secular, and wear no idealistic halo. Yet, in speaking of his work as flower-paintings, a second look is in order, since they are about much more than flowers.
Most of the space in Wolfe's paintings isn't occupied by flowers. A determined, indeed obsessive inclusiveness extends to a quota of their immediate habitat, with leaves, stems, roots, blades of grass, moss, and sand making up a nearly indecipherable tangle that representation has carefully disentangled. Take the splendid Lost and Found. Around the serrated leaf/blooms of variegated color, are dead leaves, cast off blossoms (if that's what they are; they are a desert plant unknown to me), and decaying branches that have haphazardly fallen upon several layers of a brown undergrowth, out of which four tiny green plants start up. Each detail is eager to prove its authenticity. But the important point here is that this quota of earth is enacting several cycles at once between the poles of efflorescence and decay. We witness a portrait of process. A few days later, and what we see will have gone another way. In several paintings, the desert, never far away in the American Southwest, frames cacti (About Texas II) or a clump of red flowers that stamp their shadows on the sand (Mal Pais). These paintings picture the furious energy of survival in barren ground, "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." More is implied than what is painted: acres of scorched land, sudden bursts of growth, a sense of wind and weather, even though all is seen without a horizon, looking down from no more than a foot away. All foreground, the pictures tilt, with proper spatial etiquette, into a shallow, layered shelf.
When you turn to Wolfe's pencil drawing of plants, the agenda changes slightly. The blooms, centered and carefully depicted, occupy most of the space; context is indicated rather than realized. There is a careful attention to the serial silhouettes of the petals within each blossom, and to the spiral arabesques described by the outlying petals. These drawings are cousins to those of the most enigmatic of American flower painters, Martin Johnson Heade. Heade's magnolias have been compared to odalisques, his winding stems to compressed energy, and his orchids sometimes look as if they could eat you. With flowers and plants Heade can induce moods from the exquisite to the sinister, the ecstatic, and the foreboding. There is no more perfect demonstration that any subject can be made to say anything if the artist is sufficiently thoughtful and gifted. What do David Wolfe's flowers tell us?
They speak of obsession, passion, logic, distance, intimacy, literalism, invention, observation, joy, patience, precision - a tangle of properties and inclinations, reflecting a sharp and searching intelligence. And paradoxically, it is that intelligence that outlines each form, each detail. That is the conceptual issue in the artist's miraculous re-enactments of what we are pleased to call reality. It is what returns us to where we began, with Dürer's clump of grasses, where intellectual precision is deployed to give the feeling of an actuality that transcends any historical period. In this, Wolfe's generous paintings add to a great tradition.
Former art critic for The New York Times and past editor of Art in America. Also known as the artist, Patrick Ireland, he has had over forty one-person exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.