By Deborah Weisgall
2009, acrylic on panel, 20” x 15”
2009 acrylic on panel, 20” x 15”
In this recent work, Mark Wethli paints spare, almost typographical shapes on beat-up, splintered boards. Exuberant contradictions, they seem ancient and pristine at the same time. Throughout his distinguished career—both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Portland Museum of Art have his work in their permanent collections—Wethli has explored the intersections between abstraction and the real world.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists such as Piet Mondrian were “going for the ideal,” Wethli says. “Those paintings seem to live outside the flow of life.” In his paintings, Wethli wants to provide evidence of life, its clutter and improvisation. “I was bowled over by the Gee’s Bend quilts,” he continues, referring to patchwork quilts made by a community of women in Alabama. “I want my pieces to feel as if they’ve had a history, and a purpose.”
The boards are tops of worktables salvaged from a sculpture studio at Bowdoin College, where Wethli is a professor of art. “They show signs of cutting, drilling, and pounding—beautiful marks,” he says. “The imprint of the passing of time.”
Wethli worked with radial and horizontal grids, skewing the centers slightly, drawing lines that don’t quite meet, and thinning the wash of paint so the marks on the wood remain part of the finish. Cinnamon Girl is cream and crimson; Kwazy Wabbit is black and crimson on a creamy ground.
They seem to be having a conversation about mood and color, about the energy of their pinwheeling lines and the rhythm of large shapes and delicate details. But they are not too serious. “Cinnamon Girl” is the title of a song by Neil Young. “Kwazy Wabbit” conjures Bugs Bunny and might refer to one of Wethli’s first jobs out of college: he was an art director at Marvel Comics and worked on comic books including Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian.
Precise geometries and random surfaces, intention and accident, control and spontaneity—in these paintings, Wethli asks questions about the impulse to make art. He paints a mystery: art’s power to make us pay attention.
These two paintings are included in the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, which runs through June 5. This series of exhibitions of contemporary work, each curated by a panel of three independent jurors, offers a view—sometimes stunning, sometimes quirky, always exciting—of the range of art with Maine connections.
Portland Museum of Art