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Layers of Art

In 1950, in his Fourth Avenue studio in New York City, Dutch immigrant artist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) created Excavation, a large and ambitious, masterful painting, that synthesized abstraction and figuration. According to de Kooning, the painting was a response to images of women working in a rice field, shown in the 1949 Italian film Bitter Rice. In the film, de Kooning watched peasant women working the moist earth with spades, a labor in the form of excavation. In his studio de Kooning labored over a dense and expressive work, superbly structured, while at the same time loose, open ended, and without center.
In Excavation, de Kooning began with an intensive surface, and followed with a long process of scraping down the paint layers. To his black enamel house paint and white zinc, the artist added areas of oil colors that pierced the painting’s large black and white strokes. Within his abstract field, de Kooning painted defined anatomical parts that included eyes, teeth, noses, necks, and jaws. There, in New York City, the forms and traditions of art history were found in de Kooning’s celebration of contemporary gestures. Biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan wrote: “No other American painting—not even Stuart Davis’s pictures—conveyed with comparable force the jazzy syncopation of the city. The rhythmic line led the eye through the painting at different speeds.  In the hooking stroke, there was a constant stop-start: quick turns, sudden open spaces, the passing note of recognition. Color slipped beguilingly across the eye and was lost...The restless casting about of line—and the tension between darks and lights and the fitful illumination of color—also suggested the nervous play of existential thinking in 1950.” (Stevens and Swan, “de Kooning: An American Master,” Knopf, NY, 2011, pp. 296, 297)
In the spring of 1950, Excavation, was sent to Venice to be included in the Biennial, and in the beginning of 1951, the painting was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition entitled “Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America.” The Art Institute of Chicago selected Excavation for their winter of 1951 “60th American Exhibition,” and in 1952 the museum purchased de Kooning’s masterpiece.
Chicago multidisciplinary artist Scott Wolniak (b. 1971) was an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute in the early 1990s. It was there where Wolniak was introduced to art history and in particular was inspired by the works of the abstract expressionists. As an art student, Wolniak spent hours at the Art Institute looking at de Kooning’s painting Excavation. These days, Wolniak, who teaches art at the University of Chicago, creates labor intensive works that include drawings, paintings, sculpture and video. Wolniak’s works synthesize the found and the made with layers of exploration that investigate our visual environment. Currently Chicago’s Valerie Carberry Gallery is showing Fields, an exhibition of Wolniak’s recent work selected from two parallel studio projects, graphite drawings and carved plaster tablets. The gallery is exhibiting drawings that were constructed from multiple layers of meditative mark making—a slow, additive process by which the landscape image eventually yielded to the act of drawing itself, subverting the practice of representation. Inversely, Wolniak’s slabs of cast plaster were subjected to a reduction of material. The tablets were carved, incised and chiseled before being painted and stained, and in the process Wolniak created a hybrid of painting, drawing and sculpture. The solo show runs through May 31.
Wolniak, whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center, Hyde Park Art Center and many other venues writes: “In my current plaster tablets and relief paintings, I build atmospheric spaces through sustained mark making on irregular surfaces. These pieces refer to ancient tablets, geological souvenirs and ambiguous artifacts, with intentionally ‘wrong’ techniques being deployed to destabilize form. Based on the idea of bidirectional becoming, additive and subtractive gestures occur simultaneously, resulting in the excavation of stratified visual fields. I embed surface within support to create a tension between the image and object and to reveal the internal aspects of a work’s making.” (http://www.newamericanpaintings.com/artists/scott-wolniak)

Published: April 25, 2014
Issue: Spring 2014 Issue