Wendy Welch, Circuitous Routes: Abundance/Excess


[First published by Open Space, Sept 2009]

“Why do nature’s messes always look so much better than human messes? I always observe those piles of tangled seaweed along the ocean shore intensely and wonder how could the feeling of that tangled heap be captured in drawing. A lot of my drawings are an attempt at this. Actually I’ve been after this effect for about 20 years.”

– Wendy Welch

I. Bodies Without Work: Circulation, Density, Arterial Routes

”A huge investigation for me is the ‘natural gesture’ …the scribble, when is it authentic, when is it natural,” writes Wendy Welch, speaking to the origins of her cut-paper assemblages.

“Cutting makes me take the time to focus on the nature of this gesture.”

Welch has cut up cheques, envelopes and other forms of documentation that flow through the economic circulatory system of the Vancouver Island School of Art, a school she directs from an office that, in sequestered instances, becomes a studio. At such moments, cutting becomes a means of intervening relief, the same way doodling on a message pad grounds the current of a telephone conversation.

Welch has stated, “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.”

She cites Luanne Martineau’s drawings that contain tracings made from the background marks in comic books:

“…Those side gestures that aren’t part of the main narrative but are so important…” the unremarked-upon marks like the crazy spiral whorl around Charlie Brown as he is tackled for the thousandth time, the conjugation of the conjuration that is cartooning.

“They come from an understood language.”

A salient characteristic of drawing in the modern period is self-consciousness. An artist’s mark declares ongoing intent and present-mindedness, whereas background hatchings, the non-artist’s telephone doodle, declare their author’s absence like a Houdini diagram in a tangled coil of abandoned rope that no longer wears the gesture of its vanished captive.

Works like Circulation Density and Arterial Routes strive to emphasize this disappearing act, presenting the doodle as telling everything about the body (where it goes, what it does, how it’s made) except what it looks like from the outside. Both Circulation Density and Arterial Routes explore a copious layering that isolates and explodes (respectively) the quest for a decisive, revealing gesture, what Welch refers to as “an authentic mark.”

Rather than tell, Density shows, like the illustrations of a biology text, promising the secrets of reproduction that forestall our prurient search with one page after another of transparent provisions (bones, nerve-endings, blood vessels, musculature) until at last lust loses to literature. Floating out front is a part that won’t mesh, the reflection or projection of inquiring desire.

Arterial Routes amplifies the doodle’s intimacy until it yields an unravelling physiognomy, like the ectoplasm produced by a medium, a message like the letter some poet said we all get to read sooner or later, carried around in our corpuscles as the mnemonic chant we forget we forgot. Tracking the rhythmic Routes on the gallery wall, we are somewhere between sonar and shadowboxing.

II. Everyday Excess

Welch’s mother was a weaver, a heritage that doubtless asserts itself in the ways she manipulates materials. Welch was initially trained as a painter and uses colour in her work as a means of fabricating discernment and choice, but the palette she chooses is made from commonplace domestic materials. For the piece Corinthian Column (2007), for example, Welch braided six months’ worth of paper, fabric, plastic, aluminium cans and foil, household elements that would otherwise have been thrown out or recycled.

Welch’s compositional language takes form by successively linking bits of discrete information into a complex network. With an intensity born of a laborious assemblage technique that is at once painterly and sculptural, the interplay between individual components and overall structure allows Welch to explore the boundaries between art and everyday life.

It is in the narrative of cataloguing everyday life, however, that a confessional aspect of Welch’s work unexpectedly appears, at first like an unintended flaw, traces of restlessness or mess that gain conceptual momentum as the work is explored more fully.

Welch’s installations must be assembled and broken down carefully. This can be an exhausting process, ecstatic at the outset, depressing in its denouement, a shift from promising transformation to wearisome stockpiling, the bell-curve of buyer’s remorse. The choice to manipulate everyday domestic material carries connotations of a domestic struggle, The Story of Stuff dramatized on TV as redemptive purge and renewal cycles in which the clutter of ordinary homes is briskly disciplined by more organized storage.[1]

Welch cites Martha Stewart as an influence, in part for “her dedication to the handmade,” but at the same time for the “almost ridiculous creating [of] many objects we don’t need (embellishing cloth diapers with rick-rack comes to mind).”

This aspect of potential self-parody (often noted affectionately by fans) is in equal proportion to the growth of Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO), a synergistic corporate entity based on the consolidation of Stewart’s various incarnations and undertakings. Stewart the entrepreneur has always made able use of herself as a model and exemplar, with the understanding that through care and investment, consumers can “become like Martha.”

Welch’s creative behaviours mimic and amplify those of the aspirational credit-card nester: she chooses the material before she decides what can be done with it. She thinks in terms of infinity, of an ever-expanding universe of materials.

III. (Reconstructed as Abundance)

Making art with waste isn’t what it used to be. The transit from an object’s being discarded to its becoming abstracted as a spent idea or a piece of scurf, in Welch’s time (as opposed to Kurt Schwitters’ or Robert Rauschenberg’s) is virtually instantaneous. Objects project themselves as desirable consumer choices and imprint in the resin of physical memory in a single transaction, as we harvest their promise with shocking velocity. To paraphrase Monet’s comment about landscape, waste is nothing but an impression, and an instantaneous one.

Welch’s weaving of the everyday objects of Tumbleweed (Reconstructed) is also their unweaving, their undoing as personal effects and their transformation into redeemable meaning. Made of material used a decade’s worth of earlier artworks (the artist keeps a colour-coded inventory), the materials are now in their third life. Paradoxically, this process of hashing and re-hashing brings them closer to painterly gestures even as the physical act of pulling them from plastic bags stashed in a rusted shipping container implicates Welch in Baudelaire’s model of artist as rag picker.

Welch confesses a fascination with Celtic knotwork forms, with their underlying grid structures and open and closed forms. The literary parallel of the knotwork motif could be seen as the Celtic or Old-English riddle, as a progressive unravelling of attributes in search of an unnamed culprit

I am not made from the rasping fleece of wool

no leash pulls [me] nor garrulous threads reverberate

nor do oriental worms weave [me] with yellow down

nor am I plucked with shuttles or beaten with the hard reed

and yet I will be called a coat in common speech…[2]

The modern equivalent of this identification-via-disconnection would be Ad Reinhart’s recital of refusals, a zero-degree definition of artwork that also reads like an operating manual for abstraction:

A work of art is not work.
Working in art is not working.
Work in art is work.
Not working in art is working.
Play in art is not play…

…Yellow in art is yellow.
Dark gray in art is not dark gray.
Matt black in art is not matt black.
Gloss black in art is gloss black.
White in art is white…

…Simplicity in art is not simplicity.
Less in art is not less.
More in art is not more.[3]

In the binary litany of “is”/ “is not”s, the slimmest of points of overlap dispute critical territory, a glancing friction between positivism and negation that yields up the identity of the subject in question (“black,” “working,” “work”).

The woven/unwoven/rewoven objects of Welch’s Tumbleweed (Reconstructed) are participants in a rolling retrospective that is also an elimination dance, Recalling Michael Ondaatje’s poem of the same name, a rambling catechism of absurd yet humanizing stipulations (“Anyone who has testified as a character witness for a dog in a court of law,” “Any person who has burst into tears at the Liquor Control Board” and finally, “Anyone with pain.”[4]) These characters lose their specific identities even as we adjust our gaze to identify or indemnify them, registering a castoff’s flash of sadness before succumbing to their hue.

IV. Failover Histories: Of Traffic and Transmission

“The knowledge that we have invented our world does not erase the possibility that we might believe in it.”

– Jessica Stockholder [5]

In graduate school, Welch subtitled a piece Single Point Failure, referring to the concept (from computer network systems design) of a system that will fail if any single point of its network is disrupted. Welch pointed out in an artist’s talk that her work does not in fact ever have a Single Point of Failure (SPOF) construction despite her penchant for precarious presentation.

Though the gestures of Transmissions (Broken) are dense and ecstatic, they do not contribute to any final gestalt diagram. Instead, they are full of dark, anarchic marks, suggestive of oddball follicles or skid marks leading into snow banks. Our fear in an age of ultimate connectivity being ever that one random anomaly (a leaked e-mail memo, a sneeze in a subway train) precipitates systemic collapse.

The series separately titled Traffic Patterns and Transmissions (Broken) are models of the tension between the will to propagate and the success or failure to connect. They are also artworks that are about success as the outcome of prior error, reflecting systems that have learned to imitate and accommodate the patterns of accident. Welch’s antic gestures in the end relate what the artist has elsewhere referred to as “contingent agreement”: a program rewritten by its user-community, a hemisphere of the brain reclaiming lost functioning after catastrophe.

Taking the metaphor of “SPOF” further, why not interpret Welch’s work in terms of SPOF’s proposed solutions, conceiving of “failure” not only in terms of structural integrity, but also the modernist promise that structural integrity equals a commensurate integrity of meaning? In adapting the solutions offered by systems designers for SPOF problems, we construct a conceptual sitemap for navigating Welch’s work:

What designers call “Reduced Complexity,” for instance, promises that “complex systems shall be designed according to principles decomposing complexity to the required level.”[6]

Interpret “decomposing complexity to the required level” as wit or tact, a function of truth-telling relative to scale. Up close, Welch’s interface falls back on an intimist humour of object-fatigue. Standing back, it reveals itself as fulsome, lovely structures. Between the two is a blur.

“Redundancy” refers to the duplicating of critical components, so that should one component fail, the other will kick in. The literature of systems design refers to “an automatic and robust switch or handle to turn control over to the other well functioning unit,” a.k.a. the “failover.”[7]

The phrases “automatic and robust switch” and “well-functioning unit” speak to a body’s restorative rituals and regimens, the day-to-day engagement to repetitive efforts that as a matter of course miraculously transpose routine encounters with everyday materials into pleasure, acuity and mental health.

This “robust switch” of course, is craft.

Related to redundancy is “diversity design,” “a special redundancy concept that cares for the doubling of functionality in completely different design setups of components to decrease the probability that redundant components might fail both at the same time under identical conditions.”[8]

An artwork’s ability to be read in multivalent ways owing to its inclusivity is something decided in its origins rather than in its outcome. To tolerate a wide range of materials, permitting them to arrive in a work with their histories intact, allows that adjustments in meaning to flex as readily as paper bowing under the weight of several stresses. A call-and-response of gesture, gap and gloss will surely transfer those stresses onward to other meanings elsewhere, as viewers pick and choose, recognize and relate, acknowledging tensions without apprehending freight. This is generosity.

The final condition of a successful network is “transparency,” the promise that whatever systems design will deliver long term reliability is based on transparent and comprehensive documentation.[9] Transparency has an ethical basis, in that with a self-documenting system, flaws can be assessed by a community as potential areas of improvement, development or growth… (Governments no longer meaningfully promise any ideals other than transparency.)

Welch’s pieces offer a triple transparency. The first is the way repetition inhabits their gestures, encoding redundancy in an automatic switch to what the body learns. Because it is easy to learn, it is easy to see (and for Welch, easy to teach).

The second transparency is in their collaborative character (the artist produces her installations with the aid of a community of friends and students), which insures both robustness and diversity.

The final transparency is in their insistence upon literalism. The works never cease to be their materials, photographs, posters and drawings, as such. Their flatness is self-documenting, the artist’s starting point is also her punch line, inviting viewers at all times to acknowledge just how much of the work they are making up themselves.

V. Postscript: Enclosures and Edens

“On the very first day of art school I had a sense of coming home that I’d not once experienced from K to twelve. I loved every moment of art school. […] Art, you are my Jackhammer. Art, you are my bulldozer.”

– Douglas Coupland[10]

In authoring this essay, I have tried to recall my primary experience with Wendy Welch’s work, which was installing a large wall-collage piece for an exhibition in Portland. At the time I was aware that the coming together of the work would be fundamentally improvisational, attached by segments of tape or clips, rippling and clinging to walls and stairs, as much a mental projection or imaginative construct as a scenographic (or biomorphic) model. It was easier to understand as an activity than writing a conventional essay that does not itself branch out in every direction, dangling rather than bonding, resembling rather than describing.

This experience has also merged with my primary experience with Welch herself, as her colleague at VISA. Phrases that seem appropriate to her work such as “candour at once literal and fictive,” apply equally well to the consensus-forming-as-moving-target that is art school. Surveying the plenitude of graph paper in Welch’s watercolours, one recognizes the charting of creative unreality underlying her entrepreneurial adventure.

The tiny painted gestures in cells that make up Enclosures are gestures in potentia, instructor’s exemplars like alphabet of a kindergarten frieze, peculiar lore touched as much as read.

Writing in a recent issue of Art in America, critic Dave Hickey drew on contemporary notions of Utopia and Eden, Utopias being largely defined by what they leaves out (hunger, vagrancy, artists, etc.) and Edens for what they incorporate (anything your heart desires.)[11]

Gestures are an Edenic language, executed without shame, morphologically promiscuous, whereas fixed cannons of formal criteria are utopian, exclusive and absolutist. Art schools have been all of these.

Art pedagogy is perhaps at all times threatened and enlivened by the provisional, speculative honesty that is the art that happens inside and around it, the two forces only certifying one another fully in rare moments of collaboration so perfectly demanding they might be characterized as sculpture. At these moments the undertaking of “art school” ties and tethers itself to the physical fabric of the space brokered between building and authorship, but it remains difficult to separate the experiential from the possible, to mark, that is, the boundary between physical and imaginary space.


[1] C.f. http://www.storyofstuff.com/

[2] “Notes, The Old English Translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle of Lorica,” The Review of English Studies 1997 XLVIII(191):345-349; doi:10.1093/res/XLVIII.191.345 (Oxford University Press, 1997.)

[3] Ad Reinhardt, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy.” Art as Art, The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt. Ed. Barbara Rose (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991)

[4] Michael Ondaatje, “Elimination Dance (Intermission).” The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. (Toronto:McClelland and Stuart, 1989), pp 77-87

[5] 5. Qtd. by Lynne Cooke for “Jessica Stockholder: Your Skin in this Weather Bourne Eye-Threads and Swollen Perfume.” http://www.diacenter.org/exhibitions/introduction/52

[6] C.f. Wikipedia, “Single Point of Failure”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_Point_of_Failure

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] C.f. Douglas Coupland, “High School Confidential”, The Walrus, July/August 2006; http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2006.07-field-notes-douglas%20coupland-memories-high-school-confidential/

[11] David Hickey, “Pagans”, Art in America, October 2008; http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_9_96/ai_n30890687/

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