Tim Wilson’s small paintings, now at Nathalie Karg Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, offer a peculiar amalgam of quietude and foreboding, realized with a muted palette that reverberates on many other levels.1 In keeping with the exhibition’s title, “Between Either and Or”(which I believe misleadingly suggests a metaphorical stasis within Kierkegaard’s open dichotomy), the eighteen panels are reflections on immobility, though they easily break free from the restrictions imposed by their unusual source material: cropped sections of background staging taken from stills of fifty-year-old films. Meditations on what any of us might choose to lock our gaze upon in the midst of a passive stare, the paintings nevertheless allow for a dream-like malleability that mitigates the stiff tenor of their initial appearance.
Wilson’s paintings, all made this or last year, are clearly representational. One easily recognizes the bottom of a staircase, an oblique view of a framed mirror, or receding horizontals defining a line of restaurant tables, all scenes empty of figures but charged with their absence. Measuring an average of sixteen by twenty inches, the panels lure the observer close to the surface, to a viewing distance one would typically keep before a Vermeer. The comparison is fitting, both in the way Wilson’s stolen glances mimic Vermeer’s voyeurism and in the way Wilson’s soft-focus technique translates the gleaming surfaces of picture frames, chandeliers, and other domestic accouterments into pure light. The silver tea set establishing the foreground of Sitting Room liquefies into mercurial clouds that float in a trompe l’oeil shimmer similar to the Delft master’s legendary halation.
To achieve this dispersed look, Wilson paints with a brush too large to tolerate fussy minutiae. Though the method might seem like an arbitrary style-generator, it helps the works move from the lens-generated imagery of their sources into standalone meditations. Each panel is prepared by mounting cold-pressed watercolor paper onto stretched linen, the deckled edges overlapping the canvas just enough to be noticeable without disturbing the frame’s compositional function. The result is an understated disruption that echoes the chromatic expression within. These mottled surfaces are then prepared with grounds of luminous tints—orange, green, yellow, pink. The grounds often show through, particularly at the edges, giving the artist’s muted palette an uncanny radiance.
Because the subjects are selected exclusively from cinematically conceived interiors, a few paintings merely borrow aspects from traditional still-life structure (Bouquet II, for instance) while others embrace the genre wholeheartedly. Whereas nearly all of Wilson’s pictures take a downward perspective, Bouquet I, depicting a single flower vase interrupting an otherwise monochromatic field, is unusual in its eye-level view reminiscent of the late William Bailey’s work. In others, such as Dining Room II, deep space is soaked in an atmospheric perspective that suggests a number of diverse precursors. Fairfield Porter’s gestural swiftness and J. M. W. Turner’s indulgent Petworth experiments come to mind.
Despite its generally muted tone, Wilson’s color is rich in both variety and interactive accord. In a few examples he chooses monochrome. The color in Motel Room, a study in black and ocher, exudes a crushing dullness that suits its banal subject. In strictly formal terms, the painting’s saving grace is the draftsmanship of the rendered fabric patterns. In contrast, Wild Horses—its name a reference to an almost insignificant decoration on a table lamp in the picture—translates sunlight filtering through a window in a manner similar to P. S. Krøyer and other late-nineteenth-century impressionists. Get up close, however, and its strangely harmonious lavender ground moves our thoughts to Matisse.
Wild Horses demonstrates how Wilson’s free hand with color gently subverts his self-imposed program. In subtle ways he manages to emphasize each painting’s abstract elements without appearing self-consciously strategic. Dining Room I, a composition flattened by a wall standing parallel to the picture plane, is by its obvious adherence to the grid the most abstract of the group. As such the viewer accepts the floating lamp in the background as no less troublesome than the interruption of the foreground by the back of a chair. Again, here is a technique found in Vermeer, and again an example of Wilson’s knack for discovering fresh perspectives on old pictures without leaning on theoretical fanfare.