The American artist Christopher Wool has lived and worked in New York since the early 1970s. His challenge has been to find a way forward in painting in the wake of abstract expressionism, pop art, and the Pictures Generation. His art is typified by imitation or simulation of other techniques. The canvas is replaced by aluminium sheets, and the brush by paint rollers, sponges, rags, stencils, spray, silkscreen, and Photoshop. Whether he takes concrete poetry, street art, or abstract modernist painting as his reference, Wool empties the painting for gestural content and fills it with popular culture, while remaining faithful to his painterly premise.
Wool often takes fragments of sentences from their original contexts and makes of them large text paintings in black and white. By rearranging, repeating, or omitting words, letters, and sentences Wool liberates the words: instead of carrying meaning they have a new life as part of a visual work. His sources are often from popular culture, including song lyrics (WHYMUSTICHASETHECAT – from George Clinton's funk song Atomic Dog) or film quotations (SELLTHEHOUSESELLTHECARSELLTHEKIDS – from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now). According to the artist the inspiration for his first text painting, SEX LUV (1987), came while walking in New York and seeing the words sprayed onto a brand new, white van. The letters of his paintings also seem to have been sprayed on using stencils, in the same way much street art is made. However, Wool is simulating the effect of running spray paint while actually applying enamel paint to his aluminium sheets with a paint roller. Parallel with his word paintings Wool has also created paintings referencing interior design, imitating decorative wallpaper patterns with stencils.
Around 2000 Wool's working method changed direction. He began to recycle his own production by including magnified details of earlier drawings and paintings in new works. Spots, drips, and paint splashes would be photographed, enlarged, printed, painted over, rubbed out, copied, and transferred to silkscreen by Photoshop. In this way new surfaces are formed from layers of painted and photographed sediment. Out of the ghostly remains of gestures and scribbles abstract patterns emerge, where the dividing lines between foreground/background and original/copy are pretty much impossible to determine. Most importantly the actual process of making and erasing picture elements becomes visible. Some of these works can resemble random urban splatter, like oil on a road, or over-painted graffiti. Wool has also published a photography book highlighting inner city decay: East Broadway Breakdown (2003).
It has been said about Wool's works that they can be defined as much by what they are not and what they hold back as what they are. Wool plays with the conventions of painting without adopting them and, by a process of elimination, arrives at the elements he considers essential: "You take color out, you take gesture out – and then later you can put them in".
(Photo: Aubrey Mayer)