a review of Willie Wayne Smith
by Lap Le
This last year Willie Wayne Smith had back-to-back solo shows. One in a garage in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The other in a garage in Little Rock, Arkansas. Which is only interesting in that the similarities seem to end there. One show1 is a frenetic array of bold, colorful paintings. Words scrawled with the casual immediacy of a bathroom vandal blanket coloring-book scenes from something like a Franzen novel, or Houellebecq without the sex. The other show2 is a suite of paintings and sculpture where he switches to low gear, letting the absolute virtuosity of his material execution take us into another form of madness altogether.
And in a word, the work of Willie Wayne Smith is about madness. The languid kind of madness that won’t drive a person insane, but will bring any adult living the hustle of day-to-day life to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Or at least force them to drink and laugh it off. The work reflects the late Umberto Eco’s sentiment: “that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempts to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”3
These two shows unexpectedly round out an ambitious re-negotiating of themes that WWS has always been working through. Madness abounds. The fragmented forms of one show are mirrored in the other through language and temperament. The explications in paintings like The Fielders, similar to the sharpie gospel of a drunk, speak to a broken world, both internal and external. A world that he is almost literally trying to repair in — again — the other show. He leaves the fractures there for us to see. Personal, intimate moments that reveal the friction and dissonance of life. His life? Ours? The old man at the bar? The feeling is hard to pin-point. The work, especially in the Sadie Halie show, exist on the periphery of reality, mixing with artifice and a kind of staginess that makes you second guess their internal logic.
As I see it, he is building a world from the fragments and datum of American psychosis. To give life to the mind is a dangerous task. These paintings, like madness, live distended beyond the pale of reality. Both in that these shows existed as tangled particles, flickering between one space-time to another, Little Rock to Sunset Park, and because they are the formulation of moments of cultural narratives, collected by a quiet mystic.
They speak to our insecurities and faults, our dispassionate fervor, as well as chaos. In the paintings at Good Weather these boil to the surface. “his heart is stiff from / calluses and soft / from overuse” in faded black words. They fall across a coloring-book render of a despondent barfly. This sentiment is offset by “closest to the ocean / he has been in years”. They are sporadic, drifting thoughts. Relational to each other in affect and sentiment, but following no overt narrative. Similarly, the lines of the coloring book are unheeded as smears of color wash the scene in melancholy.
Another piece portrays a figure sitting atop a bluff, watching a turbulent sea below. “This place can / help you quit smoking” hides beneath an assertive “RAINDROPS”. Then the language gets more oblique: “these are the weeds / that award the land / of unattainable / expression”. This alludes to more complex themes—themes that perhaps are more important to the artist in his own life.
At Sadie Halie, pieces like Benign at the Beginning provide a counter point. In place of the overt, mostly linguistic layering, WWS twists together the semantic baggage of quotidian objects and material form, conflating them with optical camouflage. Pieces of wood reveal themselves from what you might have thought to be expandable foam, an art school staple. In fact, you can’t take any material seriously with these pieces. Through the looking glass things are never what they seem.
In Bluffs and Broken Bottles, dated CD-players are concrete casts laced with broken bottles. Shattered to reveal themselves to you. “Bluff” takes on multiple meanings.
Slice of Heaven features another art school staple, pink insulation foam. Except everything is tromp’d to shit. Wood again, rendered into something else. Made to seem like the leftover scraps you’d probably see in his studio.
And these moments aren’t even the meat of this show. They just set the precedent for how we view the rest of the work. They prepare us to question reality, while showing off some chops. In doing so it opens us up to the thrust of WWS’s work: madness, in its most familiar and understood form.
A handful of paint trays are so stupid, they are good. Stupid because they have the same sentimentality of those paper plates from pizza parlors, where people draw on with crayons to show their appreciation for how great the service was. Except the plates are paint trays. Good because they are titled with things like “Deeply Dappled Fuck This”, "Morning with You and My Little Hill of Blue", and border on the level of Tony Matelli’s execution… if Matelli loved cheap pizza and had a Yelper’s disposition. The paint trays are aqua resin full scale replicas.
Good also because even though they are stupid, they are poetic in a very serious way. Together the trays exude, denote, and implicate a complex matrix of human emotions. From hope to frustration, disgust to optimism. They are narrative just enough. Self-referential just enough. They scratch an itch just below the surface. Satisfying just enough to make us want more.
Which the flagship works of the show deliver. Picking up the Pieces, Headway, Forever Vickey, and Benign at the Beginning bear the intellectual weight of the show (though every piece seems to be critical despite my saying this). It is more that these four pieces work together to most directly summarize the conceptual terrain of Consider My Tongue Swallowed. Material obfuscation combined with an intense psychological burden, almost illustrated in these pieces, serve to underscore the greater sentiment of uncertainty. Of instability. Of inevitable decline. Like a crack in drywall that keeps coming back despite the Spackling and sanding and priming. Like the ghost of a tumor. Like “the persistence of forgettable scraps”. Or, simply, memory.
There is something to be said about memory in his work. Laced throughout both shows is the film of nostalgia. WWS somehow makes this distortionless, neither affecting the temporality of his work or its cultural specificity. Again, vague just enough. From the more focused use of childhood references, like coloring-books and unicorns, to the more nuanced use of blurry portraits (another virtuosic display of his airbrushing chops), dioramas, and humor, he taps into a more generic and more public consciousness. The humor tempers the madness into something greater and altogether less dramatic than I have described above. It toes the line between caring and being blissfully apathetic in a way that vibrates in your head.
For instance, in the Good Weather show, the humor of a bar scene rendered as the page of a coloring book can’t be seen as a signification of childhood, but the index of childhood. A drunk’s memory. A dreamer’s memory. Or, to turn the sentiment around, it becomes the wireframe view of an unfinished life. Potential and emptiness wrestle with the language itself. Everything bleeding together. Obfuscating each other into an alchemy that recommends the viewer not over-think it. Which is an baffling recommendation to begin with. More accurately, it may be that WWS subliminally forces us to reconsider any interpretive model we view his work with. Be it optical or semantic camouflage, in which humor is a driving force, he attacks the systems of interpretation within the viewer.
Because of this, the work of Willie Wayne Smith is better felt than read. It does, I think, exist on the periphery of our consciousness. Or at least, that is where it best comes to life. In that blurred, fragmented space there is an asymmetry where you can’t take anything too seriously because it will shift before your eyes. It will force you to reconsider. To look again. Within caves and towers, or behind garage doors, this is the provocation of the magi.