On Amy Wilson
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the opening of “Ideographs,” a lively group exhibit at Point Green Studio in Brooklyn, curated by Brian Adam Douglas, on display through November 4, 2017. The reason for my attendance was that this show featured, for the first time locally in several years, public display of three works by my friend and fellow Jersey City resident Amy Wilson. The chance to view new work on display in a formal gallery setting provides me with an opening for writing a propaedeutic, if you will, on Wilson’s work, just as the three works on display at Point Green serve as a sampling of Wilson’s artistic development since her work was last shown in New York, at BravinLee Programs in 2014. And this sampling provides, in short, a stunning twist in a career marked by an astounding array of techniques and media in service of a profoundly imaginative and expressive sensibility.
A New York City native, Wilson attended the School of Visual Art in Manhattan, where she also now teaches, before receiving an MFA in sculpture from Yale. She made her name — starting with a 2005 show at Bellwether Gallery downtown — with an eruption of incredibly detailed, jewel-like watercolors featuring childlike women figures who wander sinister dream landscapes while spewing logorrheic captions about war, politics, mental illness, loneliness, paranoia, and identity. Smart, hyper-verbal, and visually arresting, they combined the timelessness of fairy tale with an acute Bush-era political sensibility. Critics were entranced; enthusiastic reviews in the New Yorker, Art in America, and the New York Times followed. One writer described her paintings as “stark fairy tales for adults”; another applauded her “cinematic scope of vision.” Rather than risking an aesthetic rut, though, Wilson kept moving, branching out into sculpture, installation art, artists’s books, and printmaking, all while refining and expanding both her vision and her visual vocabulary. The works on display at Point Green represent the latest in a series of breakthroughs; they are a brand new form of authentically unique formal experiments in a career that has been built on experimentation.
The three pieces at “Ideograms” are mounted together, serially, without framing or armature, attached directly and nearly invisibly to the north wall of the gallery. They are titled (from left to right) “The room is alive,” “We sought silence,” and “The sensation of falling,” and are immediately unlike anything else one can recall encountering. They are intricate lace-and-fabric patterned tableaux, each with a central panel showing a Wilsonian girl-figure or figures in states of falling or lying, surrounded by lace borders of astonishing delicacy, from within which cryptic phrases and words seem gradually to emerge: “the room is alive — I can feel every molecule,” “the endless churning”, “it has become predictable.” The lace borders contain phantasmagoric leaves, flowers, vines, decorative flourishes and frills, and yet more frail-looking girls. The central panels of two of the pieces contain also stitched, beaded, and embroidered fabrics woven cunningly together to suggest three-dimensional space and — in the case of “The sensation of falling” — movement. They are, especially seen up close, stunningly beautiful.
The overall effect beggars description, but an impression of immense subtlety, of technical virtuosity employed in the expression of plangent emotional truths, dominates. The pieces practically glow with thing-ness; their incredible detail and texturality make them seem curiously saturated with a sense of being a made object, of being a physical instantiation of a sensibility. They are marvelously absorbing visual objects, but they are also more than a little creepy — they have that fey, unmooring quality that one finds in fairy tales. Despite their delicate pictorial affect they practically vibrate with gothic menace.
The impact and implications of these artworks are profound, in what strikes me as three disparate but intertwined ways: that of the verbal, the feminist, and the original. In terms of the first sense, the verbality of Wilson’s work, the way it incorporates text into its visual strategy, strikes me as extremely distinctive. There is, of course, a long tradition even within modernism of artists including words in their art, a dynamic that is, needless to say, extraordinarily complex semantically and psychologically. When looking at Wilson’s art, though, a few observations can be adduced. The first is simply my contention that had Wilson never picked up a paintbrush she could well have been a superior poet, so effortless and keen is the music of her words. In addition, the contrast between the whimsy and beauty of the visual artifact and the often despairing tone of the words opens up a disjunction between the two that operates with great force. Writing of “the rich tradition of women stitching words onto clothes, turning to thread and fabric in place of ink and paper” in Broadly, the critic Rosalind Jana wrote that
prettiness is precisely the point. In the right hands, it becomes subversive. Our expectations are upended. An embellished garment becomes a powerful, commemorative symbol. A delectable-looking coat makes a stark point about anxiety. A tailored wedding dress requires reflection on the awful loss of war. Flimsy garments are made into serious pieces of literature. Stretch all the way back to Agnes Richter, and suddenly a beautiful cropped jacket requires thought about mental health, erasure of voice, and the history of incarcerating women.
The second is that these words are often difficult to, well, read; in earlier works they poured forth with a profusion that rendered them nearly illegible (“she means them to be too much for anyone to absorb,” one critic wrote), while in these current pieces they crawl around the borders of the central panel in layers that make them hard, at times, to decode. This could actually, of course — stretching here a bit, perhaps, I know — be framed as a strategy of its own; by deliberately obscuring the legibility of the slogans and phrases that permeate her mental landscape, Wilson emphasizes their fragmentary, allusive nature, undermining the perceived primacy of logocentricity even while utilizing its suggestive elements compositionally.
Perhaps even more important, the recent pieces enact a robust feminist reclaiming of gendered media. By working with such dazzling brio with traditionally gendered elements like lace, fabric, and stitching, Wilson makes an overt claim for the status of these media, which are often dismissed as mere craft, or women’s handiwork. Wilson makes it clear that she consciously considers this part of a personal heritage, as well as a form of tradeship. “My grandmother was very insistent about knitting, crocheting, and sewing,” she said in 2016. “These were very important things. It was like she was teaching me a trade. I was taught it at such a young age that it’s like knowing a language.” The slogans and poetic fragments, combined with the objectness of the artworks, evokes a rich history of associations, of embroidered school samplers, of Puritan handiwork, of those homey embroidered needlework pieces you used to see on your grandparents’ walls; they read as though frontier homecraft had been filtered through some bizarre, blackly postmodernist sensibility.
A second facet of this feminist reclaiming, to my mind, is the re-ordering of canon implicit in Wilson’s influences, which comprise a plethora of folk and outsider artists who serve as ghostly forbears. In addition to Henry Darger, perhaps Wilson’s most straightforward antecedent, these fabric pieces call up the shimmering beauty of the Gee’s Bend quilts, the strange expressiveness of Bill Traylor, the gnostic force of some of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffitied pronouncements, the garish colors and whacked-out perspectives of Florine Stettheimer, and the hypnotic visual rhythms of Martin Ramirez. Wilson’s list of influences reads like a secret, semi-hidden alternative history of modern art, from which the canon of domineering white men with their rules and bluster has been effaced. This, even more than the verbose emotional agita of her troubled girl-prophets, is her true feminist praxis in effect.
Both of these considerations contribute to, but do not completely explain, the startling feeling of freshness that these pieces evoke; what remains more resistant, finally, to analysis is their striking originality, their sense of creating a brand-new visual vocabulary. I sometimes find myself secretly wishing that people would stop making paintings, particularly abstract paintings; whatever force gestural abstraction may once have had seems to me long since to have leached away, and I have to work hard to distinguish one contemporary practitioner from the next. This ambient sense of cumulative weariness is blown into nothingness when confronted with Wilson’s lace pieces; put simply, they do not seem to me to resemble, even a little bit, anything else currently being created or exhibited, even though their materials somehow feel immediately familiar. This is the greatest achievement a contemporary artist can attain; many working artists never get there, not even once. Amy Wilson has done it, and continues to do it, and the pieces on view here suggest new dimensions yet to come, even as they satisfy and challenge.