Joe Wardwell’s Party

by Jeff Perrott

Reflection on the exhibition Joe Wardwell: Party Over, LaMontagne Gallery, 2014

One could make the argument that: the view of abstract expressionism that prized its bigness, its coaxing of sublime feelings, is rooted in the 19th century Hudson River School of landscape painting, with its embrace of the bigness of America, and especially the policy of Manifest Destiny that conveniently excused power from its genocidal abuses during the American westward expansion.  

And, one could further suggest that rock and roll’s ascension from its humble country blues and rural folk roots to hard rock anthems played in stadiums filled with adoring crowds, also finds its touchstone in that same craving for bigness, for power and dominion over all.

That’s a lot to take in, but that’s where Joe Wardwell begins, in an exhibition entitled Party Over, at LaMontagne Gallery (555 East 2nd St, South Boston, MA) through July 2014.  In his new paintings Wardwell explores the formal and philosophical interrelationships among Hudson River School landscape strategies, the familiar tropes of abstract expressionism, and rock and roll poetics, in order to deflate the pretensions to power of all three, and to return them, with us, to a humbler and more peaceful origin, rooted in the simple here and now of the painted object and our immediate and unfolding encounter with it.

Wardwell accomplishes this via a visual interlacing of the three elements, that defies any hierarchical or figure/ground arranging of the parts.  His strategy is consistent and familiar: a stenciled, large block-lettered rock lyric, filling the picture plane, both connects and divides the formal painted languages.  At once bound together and defiantly separate, they resist easy ironic or bracketing strategies in their relations.  Hovering on an edge of arbitrariness, they call to each other across a void, or whisper in each other’s ear, continually refreshing and renewing our ideas about the similarities and differences among them.

Joe Wardwell, Getting Nowhere, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 22 x 30 inches.

In one modestly scaled work in the show, entitled Getting Nowhere, Wardwell extends and gently complicates his political critique.  The manifest content seems clear: the promise of blue-sky transport offered above this chalky, barren autumnal Upstate New York hill, and the promise of flight from the self offered by Wardwell’s passable rendition of an early de Kooning’s spontaneous brushwork, both deliver us to the same dead end: to the illusion of flight and transport, and the ineffectiveness of transcendence. Getting Nowhere.  The eye continually moves from one to the other, and to the consideration of the block letters, never allowing any one of them to dominate and co-opt our ideas, never a resting point that could serve as a launching pad for ideology.  Getting Nowhere.  

But Joe isn’t done, and isn’t content with a simplistic critique, as he sneaks in a double meaning: the letters comprising Getting Nowhere morph in the eye to Getting Now Here.  For as we cognize the failure of transcendent strategies of art making, we also find ourselves face to face with the emptiness at the very core of transcendence; the emptiness, seemingly, of promise itself of something other, better, more.  Getting Now Here: Wardwell lands us with a thud back here and now, in the presence of the painted object and our relating to it.

And this is exactly what Wardwell’s work understands: that the accession of the ideal into power begins with transcendence — the thought that the beyond has more realness or validity than the here and now, and the rejection and violence of what is that follow. Think Manifest Destiny.  What the artist attacks and looks to terminate is exactly this type of transcendental yearning, the seed and underpinning of power.  This is the party Wardwell hopes to end - the party of transcendence — to replace it with a different sort of party, one content in the present, in the material fact of the painting and our immediate encounter with it.  This party lets us play in the uncertain muck of the encounter itself, where meaning is happily trapped in the simple play of disparate yet related elements, never resting too long in any idea that removes us from our circumstance, the real.  In this way, the Getting Now Here earns us some comfort in the Getting Nowhere, in the changeable immediacy of who we are in relation to the object, and in the peace that’s perhaps the underlying original promise of Hudson River and Abstract Expressionist painting — and certainly Rock and Roll.  

Read More Writings by/on Jeff Perrott