Contributed by Margaret McCann / Issy Wood’s paintings in “Time Sensitive” at Michael Werner gallery render transient facets of our daily simulacrum timeless. As though passed through a vintage filter, they seem to recall a. Claude glass, an 18th c pocket-sized, toned mirror that could turn any scrappy piece of wilderness into “a vision of painterly charm: framed and set apart from the rest of the landscape, color palette simplified, bathed in gentle, hazy light.” Aided by a new picturesque aesthetic that combined “the sweetness of the beautiful, cut with some of the sublime’s majestic terror,” ramblers who couldn’t afford the Grand Tour found beauty in local scenery with this handy device. Today one need not even venture outdoors to see anything new. Overstimulation awaits on a quick screen scroll, shifting from monuments to corrective braces to kittens to a Ukrainian battlefield in seconds. Woods slows this high-low flow, turning incongruous images fished from the cyber-stream into often amusing visual meditations with surprising emotional depth.
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The giant teeth in My consequences encroach on the viewer, but an antique haze pushes them slightly out of focus, so they are both near and far away. Between its two natural companions a shiny crown gleams, the trio poised like a thoughtful still-life arrangement. The title suggests that Wood is recollecting something personal and we are gazing at her gaping mouth, though detachment from the gum references dental models available online. Any unpleasant association of metallic taste or dentistry is overwhelmed by the painting’s mystery.
Informal titles read like grammarless texts, cheeky annotations, or personal asides whispered in one’s ear. Go Daddy! (Naming names) references a domain name website but may also project father issues onto a benign car interior. Before reading it, one may enjoy the painting’s easygoing cubist structure, tender dim light, and rich tonality. Bodily sensations are triggered; the seat looks comfortable. After reading it the car feels less inviting, and one may feel burdened or frustrated with the sketchy outlines of a stranger’s family drama. Wood’s intrusions and withdrawals toy with the viewer, left to find a link between placid visuals and agitated literary suggestion. Far-flung poles demarcate a continuum of potential meaning.
Stark juxtapositions, recalling dada and surrealist psychology and nonsense, engage our pleasant confusion. Like a furry teacup or bad dream, the intersection of flesh, metal, and teeth in Secure Attached is striking and disconcerting, while restrained harmonies of red, blue and yellow, and Wood’s ever-soft edges, form a mellow atmosphere. The title makes a psychological pun regarding attachment theory, and one may wonder how the imagery might serve as metaphors for parents, or for other psychodrama. A wide range of possible meaning facilitates freer associations. The group of locks forms a barrier in front of the face, partially glimpsed under the sepulchral light like an anatomical part in a reliquary. They lay upon or hover over a surface which may be the body belonging to the face. As focus shifts between either aspect, an implied dichotomy fixes quiet contention.
The sarcastic title Me at the season finale may have us guess what TV show ending the artist had to steel herself against. Computer light is again forgone for a warm medieval-izing tonality that manages, as in the work of Michael Borremans, to skirt cliché or sentimentality. Consistently mild edges and detail keep the eye roving across evenly defined parts. Curiosity is sparked as cropping coyly withholds information, excluding us from whatever’s happening behind. We can see a funny face in the helmet, a playfulness that doesn’t mar the sensitivity of tonal modelling or the seriousness and weight of armor. The painting amuses, but like an icon respects the glowing past enshrouding artifacts.
Badly is slight in size, but the intimate objects depicted are larger than life. Small things are again in your face. The title presents more judgmental framing, or an urban dictionary interpretation we can expand into narrative. The combination of trivial subject, geometric patterning, and candid but bland self-assertion express an equanimity like that in the paintings of Jennifer J. Lee, who uses rough canvas texture instead of an old mastery patina to assert aloofness. Wood’s gentle brush-dabs and the relative translucence of plastic suggest weightlessness, moving the image toward the obliqueness of a Luc Tuymans. But Wood sees things as though through the dark glass of tinted lenses, rather than the distant bleaching of projection. The birth control dispenser takes on the pathetic humor of a neglected historical object viewed under the murky, low light of an underfunded museum.
The estate catalogs Wood peruses for inspiration offer secondhand articles that unknown memories cling to, and that sadly represent parts of life legacies. Study for the pragmatism is oddly moving, even as it makes fun of both consumerism and the still-life genre, like Pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. It looks like a cross between John Currin’s overtly funny dish still life, and an earnest and ethereal Ross Bleckner dealing with death. Cleverly inaccurate realism on kitschy black velvet, the poor man’s luxury, mocks shopping and acquiring and, like Bad and Lowbrow painting, the pretense of painting.
The obscure yet airy situations Wood renders reflect those of her music, in which sounds and words move in and out of our attention, loom onstage, then retreat to the background or wings. Even with its cynical title, mystification abounds in the large Courtship! Valuables! For Fun!. Set in front of a Von Honthorst image of a woman playing a guitar and looking stage right, inconsequential consumer items, perhaps tennis-themed décor for a dressing table, slowly pass before us as though on a conveyor belt’s orderly procession. As they drift in a diagonal current upper left to lower right, the rectangle is fortified against the catwalk-like advance by the hand’s visual weight upper right. Below, a small, carefully placed horizontal mirror reinforced by the darkened lower left corner only just establishes foreground, a droll spatial irony Philip Guston regularly employed. Despite Wood’s overcast light and dense darks, zero gravity prevails in this disorienting, absurd yet stately image.
Positioned like a map key, the timepiece in the weird, compelling, and diminutive Study for grunt work confronts the viewer with only an inscrutable explanation. The painting’s tight composition of elements, and conscious evasion of meaning, belie the offhand title’s casualness. Robust foreshortened shoulders of a figure looking away in the upper left fit tensely inside the slim rectangle, while a square frontal clock set in the lower right corner stabilizes it. Like the disparate textures and distant intervals in her equally elliptical music, unrelated things find accord. The indirect drama of Wood’s painting is enhanced by the medium’s collapse of time into, and issuance from, singularity. Her more nuanced, colorful, aural vocabulary in four dimensions is relatively baroque. Interpersonal lyrics utilize random objects like soup or cortisone as her paintings do, and share their wit and pathos. But their minimalism makes her paintings more intense, and perhaps because they are bolder they tell better, subtler jokes. Wood’s gentle nihilism approaches metaphysical painting’s speculations regarding “the times” as the show’s title implies, yet these enchanting images discourage too much thinking. We are enigmatically led toward notions we enjoy contemplating without minding what we clearly can’t understand.
“Issy Wood: Time Sensitive,” Michael Werner Gallery, 4 E. 77th Street, New York, NY. Through November 19, 2022.
About the author: Painter and arts writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League.