The core element of Christopher Wool’s work is the process of painting itself. He has consistently explored the very essence of painting as a medium – form, line, colour – and engaged with its complexity by exploring the tension between application and erasure, depth, flatness and gesture, as in Untitled. Wool marks painting out as as much a conceptually driven practice as one tending towards the aesthetic. He experiments with different painting and reproduction techniques, using silkscreen, spray paint or pattern rollers, layering and erasing different forms of mark-making – making reference to the process and gestures that have, in turn, marked contemporary art history. Here an obvious precedent is the layered and surface-rich ‘number’ paintings of Jasper Johns. Wool is also, however, appropriating his own earlier paintings, particularly his most well-know ‘word paintings’ – black stencilled letters that that form isolated words or fragments of phrases, aggressively silhouetted against the white canvas. The artist screen prints parts of the earlier painting directly onto the canvas, and then engages in a process of reproducing, vandalising and renewing the vacated letters through physical intervention. Where the word paintings hover between language and image, representation and abstraction, Wool’s newer works adopt the iconicity of his earlier work and attempts to blur their recognisability and semantic wholeness.
The scale of the work, and the use of Wool’s typically spare palette – black, white and white – has the potential to overwhelm the viewer. There is a brutality and decadence in the overlaid skeins of silkscreen ink, both a formal decay and a tangled web of self-appropriation. In mining the medium of painting, Wool suggests that any previous form is ripe for commandeering. Silkscreen and spray paint, in a sense, act as metonyms for their most recognised practitioners – Warhol and Basquiat (Wool’s contemporary in the New York art scene of the 1980s). By co-opting his own painting into the work, Wool further complicates this easy tracing of art historical lineage. The artist also uses digital processing to warp the scale, colour and resolution of his previously painted marks, further complicating its layered and conflicted originality. The insertion of a conceptual gesture into the picture plane, as here, is what defines Wool’s practice, and what creates a space in his work that marks itself out as more than a disregard for the physicality of the canvas:
“Christopher Wool’s paintings seem to capture visual urban experience, carved out of a moment for the duration of an artwork – an artwork that converts the structures of experience into the structures of painting. Non-specific moment and impressions are lifted out of context and fixed into details of a painting that, unlike graffiti, conveys the speed and concentration of its origin only when it is contemplated over a measure of time in an art space. The dynamic of the picture’s conception becomes, very gradually, the dynamite of the thought it contains. Thought pictures” (Friedrich Meschede, ‘The Nothingness before Nothing,’ Christopher Wool, Galerie Max Hetzler and Holzwarth Publications, 2007).