The Curtain’s Part: Confronting Abstraction’s Complacency in Unquiet Times

Neil Wedman, "Spotlights" (Installation View), 2018.
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Neil Wedman’s Spotlights, on view at Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery, fills the exhibition space with ten canvases depicting the concentrated shine of a spotlight on the gathered folds of a closed theater curtain. The stage is empty, and it’s unclear whether we’re at the beginning or the end of some kind of show. Anticipation and expectation animate the work, provoking a familiar disquiet. At a time of very palpable and material anxiety, the exhibition compels us to linger in conceptual questions about tension. It directs our attention towards the ways that we interpret flatness, how we understand abstraction and absence in the realm of representation, and how we apprehend one-dimensional space within a halted sense of time.

The exhibition’s title, which also names all the individual works, provides an apt description for the geometric compositions. Simplified rectangular and circular shapes materialize out of repetitive washes of watered-down acrylic, while successive layers of masking and pouring yield illusory effects. The representational quality of Spotlights is surprisingly strong, despite a stylistic approach that leans towards the abstract. The work prepares us to understand the abstraction inherent in any representation, but also – and perhaps more resolutely – how little it can take to make something purely formal appear as representative.

Wedman’s previous bodies of work have touched on spectacular subjects: flying saucers, underwater volcanoes, desert rainbows, and exploding fireworks factories. Working predominately in greyscale, the artist depicts these phenomena in understated monochrome: soberly examining the formal characteristics of events that usually leave us stunned. For Wedman, the spectacular is a pointed moment where the relationship between visibility and invisibility destabilizes. In some instances, the previously-invisible materializes, as with the grainy appearance of flying saucers in open skies; elsewhere, the fugitive quality of a rainbow marks a shading into imperceptibility. Spotlights sits squarely amidst this trajectory, positioning intentionally dull paintings within the dramaturgic framing of appearance.

Neil Wedman, “Spotlight #8,” 2017. Courtesy Equinox Gallery.

The brief gallery bulletin outlines that these works were produced during the summers of 2016 and 2017, providing a context for the series while carefully avoiding any explicit link to the concurrent wave of Trumpism. Instead, the text suggests that the cryptic paintings be approached as ruminations on vacancy and absence. In a recent monograph, Neil Wedman: Selected Monochromatic Paintings and Works on Paper (2016), the artist expresses his difficulty in addressing the contemporary moment. This struggle seems especially apparent within this new series: after all, is there any way the painting of an empty, spotlit stage in the year 2016 could be read as an innocuous gesture? Given Wedman’s recurrent relationship to spectacle, uncanny popular culture, and dark humor, it’s difficult to avoid the associative crossovers between Spotlights and the ascendancy of high-production-value populism on the international political stage. As the political rally and the press briefing have adapted their own calibrated theatrics, the work seems preternaturally charged. We’ve become accustomed to the crass and vulgar sketch in places of office. Wedman’s drawn curtains might well evoke such a setting, where cheap jokes double as a sickening performance of power. It’s hard to see these paintings as benign.

Spotlights ultimately offers a shallow space. The painted layers obscure pictorial perspective, making it unclear what recedes and what advances. The narrow, horizontal band below the curtain’s edge is the flattened and one-dimensional stage floor, useful only for determining the painting’s seamy undertones. Even the sliver of exposed canvas, which cues us to the presence of a bustling backstage, fails to suggest any depth. The restricted flatness of the front-of-house space makes it impossible to imagine any substance or perspective behind it. The gesture offered by this slip of light only serves to reinforce the idea that suggestion is not enough. The flatness of the paintings also occludes any room for a multi-dimensional form. The complicated body — as a counterpoint to the uni-dimensional or “normative” body — finds itself pushed out of the pictorial space, at a time when it is simultaneously being pushed out of public and political spaces around the globe.

Neil Wedman, “Spotlight #3,” 2017. Courtesy Equinox Gallery.

As a whole, the works feel like a gas, stirring my agitation and impatience at their staged complacency, their seeming ambivalence. Each of the ten paintings is a deliberate and consistent copy of the last, implying the technique and strategy of rehearsal; this is certainly not an improvised scenario. From every direction, the exhibition confronts us with halted time, a sense that the relevant action has been concealed from view and we’re stuck sitting where nothing is happening. The series demands a patience from us that feels undeserved and anachronistic, particularly when the struggle for meaning has become a daily practice against the amplified post-truth messaging of the extreme right. Abstraction, redaction, and straight-out inconsistencies are already such strong features of political life, that dwelling on these works’ representational qualities feels like a joke I’ve heard before. I’m already all too familiar with the vapid performer, the vacuous performance.

While the paintings risk glazing over their potential politics, perhaps their quietude and quality of suspension invites us to approach the scene of the spotlit stage from a productively formal vantage – free from the operatic accounts and bellicose narratives that unfold in 280 character-limit bits. Perhaps instead, Spotlights suggests a spectacle reconsidered purely through its flat lack of dimension, built up by transparency and artifice.

As with all abstractions, projection feeds greatly into the interpretation of these works. And projections emerge from within a particular context. I can’t help but understand Spotlights as a confounding refrain for the present moment: both in the sense of an irritating chorus that might be stuck in one’s head, and in the sense of a withholding. The paintings have a nocturnal quality to them, with the moon-like spotlight and the suggestiveness of a late-night show. I find myself waiting for the curtains to part.

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