World Without End: “Regrets Only”, Nikki Woods at Hedge Gallery
How much is too much when everything is not enough? Welcome to the new Gilded Age, to climb onto a trope made famous by economist Thomas Picketty in his 2013 book “Capitalism in the 21st Century.” The original “Gilded Age” (so-dubbed by Mark Twain to describe the last quarter of the 19th century), was shiny and fundamentally rotten, just like now, characterized by social and economic inequity, propaganda-fueled prejudice in the face of massive waves of immigration, and ongoing genocidal mopping-up operations; all of it blurred by thick coatings of gold, both fake and real. One question that comes to mind at painter Nikki Woods’ “Regrets Only” show, now at Hedge Gallery in Cleveland, is: how can artists adequately convey the fury and frippery of the current acid bath (and I do mean LSD, not some environmentally-friendly etching fluid) of political and technological change, bad news, fake news and all the rest, in which our time is immersed. Or maybe the question ought to be, how can you convey anything else, when everything is already painted, falsified by the gilding of a trillion lies?
But good paintings are never merely editorial; no more do they stop at being broadly apocalyptic. A balanced appreciation of Woods’ oil and spray-paint works on canvas, and her supporting troupe of ceramic jello molds and ceiling-hung streamers, on display at the Hedge Gallery exhibition, needs to include a long look at art history. Pessimism is by no means the only flavor on offer here, and while politics are touched upon in some works, the concerns of the day are either lulled or overwhelmed by sheer visual sensation. It’s also appropriate to remember one of Oscar Wilde’s bons mots: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Several of Woods’ paintings illustrate the point, succeeding visually by convincingly representing a crowded, shoulder to shoulder experience of pleasure and the surfeit that follows, which like the metaphorical “Land Of Cockaigne” of medieval folklore (Bruegel’s painting of that same title shows drunken peasants sleeping it off), is an outlying province of human desire. Plainly Woods enjoys the gestures and freedoms that emerge in painterly process, and on a purely physical level most of her work celebrates life with unabashed exuberance of color and texture, movement and form. One artist she mentions as a favorite is the British enfant terrible Cecily Brown, whose huge fornicating bunny paintings of the late 1990’s gave way to equally gigantic meditations on human subjects. The burgeoning energy of those works is similar to Woods, particularly in the painting titled “Manhattan Multiplex,” based on photos taken in Donald Trump’s residence in the mid 1980’s. It seems to show the aftermath of a heavy-duty dinner party. Glasses and lit candles can be identified, warm reds and yellows (Woods combines acrylic spray paint with oils for some exciting surface action) are woven together across the rectangular canvas, pushing forward and receding in narrow swathes. Flowers and greenery are stuffed in an urn, a slice of pie sits untouched on a plate, more flowers jostle in the background in layers like a hothouse jungle. Woods shows us the torn wrappings ripped off the latest round of pleasure, piled on a table top, still fresh in memory.
“Study for a Portrait of the Artist” is based on another photograph, a view of an area in Francis Bacon’s London studio, preserved after his death in 1992 and installed wholesale in a Dublin museum. It shows a semi-circular dresser-top mirror surrounded by an avalanche of jars and brushes and reference photos. This is a different kind of indulgence, neither upscale nor lazily sensual. Bacon once remarked that for him, “excess creates images.” Like Brown’s rabbits the contents of Bacon’s small combination atelier and bedroom are meant to breed. But the intention of Bacon’s accumulations is to attain critical mass, and the clean simplicity of a transformative explosion. Bacon’s art, in its final, lean manifestations on canvas, was not about new kinds of mark making or line-making or the energies of layering and accumulation, but about gesture and erasure. Bacon’s best canvases, which were paintings of actual people he knew, capture something of the way that mind and spirit and body coexist. These are paintings that sometimes interrupt their own descriptive manner with a random slash of white paint, as if to insist that a real work of art doesn’t depict anything, but is something in itself. It may bleed paint, but it bleeds. Woods renders Bacon’s messy studio in a surprisingly literal way, as if to acknowledge the near-unattainability of his aesthetic ambitions. Hers is a history painting of a kind, about the accretion of resources and (with the mirror rising like a moon in the middle) the displacement of self.
“Pineapple Face,” like a Francis Bacon portrait fills a smallish canvas with a persona of sorts, a confrontational and gutsy departure from norms of portraiture. But it also brings to mind the late 16th century (another Golden Age!) Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Arcimboldo became known for painted images of allegorical figures and faces constructed entirely from various kinds of fruit, vegetables, and sometimes fish. His figure titled “Vortumnus” has piercing olives for eyes, for example, bean pods for eyelids, apples for cheeks, an asparagus mustache and so on. Since the Renaissance audiences have wondered whether to laugh, yet an appreciation for these extraordinary conflations of still life and icon with their multivalent, intellectual and edible associations have increasingly intrigued artists and art historians. Woods isn’t trying that hard, she stops at the yellow pineapple slices with cherry pupils, which serve as the eyes on an oval face. The girl, if that’s what she is, has short loopy bangs topping shoulder length burnt umber hair, like the hair of a rag doll maybe, and the rest of the work is intentionally casual in manner, more or less tossed off, against a narrow background of plain yellow paint. The girlish face also sports a pink spray paint upside-down frown, like the classic Kool-Aid pitcher.
Whether piled high with semi-accidental marks like a Jackson Pollock, or reduced to near invisibility like an Agnes Martin, a good painting makes you believe that there’s something in it that just might help. It keeps you coming back, looking for yourself. Woods writes, “the act of painting conjures a liminal space that suspends time and escapes fixed meaning.” The seventeen new paintings at “Regrets Only” are saturated with art history, commitment to the mysterious and tricky activities of painting, and a passion for life. They do seem to hover at the threshold of another way of seeing things, or feeling them, and they keep you coming back.