Wendy Welch at Open Space, Victoria BC.

[First published in Coagula, January 2010]

When Wendy Welch was a grad student at Cal State LA in the eighties, she tore up an Ed-Moses-style abstract grid painting on paper she had made in front of studio mate Barbara Kerwin, throwing the pieces over her head. “Does the world really need another abstract painting?” This story could be a fable about the way painting’s playing out of its own demise has developed into throwaway theatre, the acrobatic humour of Welch’s gesture itself prophetic of her future work. Welch’s recent exhibition, Circuitous Routes: Excess/Abundance features six new works that expand upon the artist’s evolving commitment to drawing and installation, while at the same time using castaway matter in a manner that recalls painting.

Welch’s pieces are assemblage via cutting and culling: doodles or scribbles are cropped and coloured, landscape photographs are snipped into spiralling double-binds, and domestic objects are sorted, braided and taped. The latter has led to a reading of Welch’s work as a critique of consumer culture. This understanding should be investigated more closely. Her objects are clean/bright rather than soured/stained, recalling the instantaneous waste of bulk-buy stores instead of the homely old artefacts of Rauschenberg or George Herms. In this, she comes closer to Jessica Stockholder, who has been known to rhapsodize over red plastic gas cans (“they embody colour, their colour goes all the way through”), while at the same time making their material’s innocuous gratuity seem like the elephant in the room. Like Stockholder, Welch is not interested in the abject glamour of everyday waste, but in its license to elicit sympathies located in the body’s wishes.

Welch has said, “A huge investigation for me is the ‘natural gesture’…I have a fascination for how people doodle, how these marks have an authenticity whether or not the person who makes them is an artist.” Welch is also the director of an independent art school, undertaking on a daily basis the weaving and weeding of gestures, the democratizing of riffs.

I am thinking of these points as I follow the curling shocks of a piece called Circulation (Administrative). Elegantly boxed in a taught network of call-and-response, they evoke an athleticism that classy art critics might relate to both Pollock and Poussin. I can’t restrain them in such linear spin-offs; tracing Welch’s cut and paste demands a willingness to think plural. The drawings were scrawled on envelopes in spare moments then pared carefully, along or against the mete line. Consider the editing room’s splice and jump, the piled-up days a store of gestures made one way then another, like martial arts manoeuvres or the finer points of table talk. Deployed, they uncoil into miraculous transformations of white wall into stolid or foolish commentary on space and pace.

Central to Welch’s show is Tumbleweed (Reconstructed), a massive tangle of recycled objects in primary hues: vinyl roses, plastic tubing, coloured tape wound around Christmas lights…a cultish collection for a forgetful flock. Looking at this work suspended centrally in the gallery is also looking through it to the surrounding walls, an act of reordering in itself. Its masses soften optically into a dangling diagram, the cluster of shrubbery choreographing a lover’s tryst in an Italian garden. Comedy and tragedy turn on symbiosis…the assemblages of paper, painting and photography on the surrounding walls are Tumbleweed’s metaphysical support-network, underwriting its fact as pattern and distraction. In another universe (across the room, over the shoulder) Tumbleweed becomes a ghost at the banquet, deepening our engagement with the threat of more object-hood, more knowledge, more history, more undoing.

In fact, Tumbleweed is ten years worth of Welch’s materials reconstituted for this event, and it risks unravelling the other works, relocating their logic in the unmanageable drag of waste-as-place. It is a credit to the integrity of Welch’s structural tact that this never happens. Instead, the piece is an organ grinder, a monster still-life in which colours surrendering their objects and objects enacting fantasies of spoiled credulity are disciplined by a composure that becomes both order and offering. Its apocalyptic narrative, reorganizing desire in the face of truth-or-consequences, gives way to a freedom from fault, a paradise of perfect placement.

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