Christopher Wool, Westtexaspsychosculpture

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Holzwarth Publications (here). Softcover with dust jacket, 226 pages, with 108 duotone reproductions. There are no captions, texts, or essays. All of the images were made in the area surrounding Marfa, Texas, between 2008 and 2017. In an edition of 1200 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many artists, regardless of the medium they ultimately use for their best known work, photography provides a way into getting in touch with the subtle and perhaps normally overlooked rhythms of their surroundings. Like carrying a sketchpad with its own quirky strengths and limitations, dragging a camera along on walks through nearby streets and landscapes offers an opportunity to pay closer attention, the repeated act of photographic selecting and framing forcing the artist to process the world with a more deliberate eye for composition and detail. In Christopher Wool’s case, while paintings undeniably form his primary artistic output, photography has always been hiding in the shadows of his easel, and his newest photobook (with its manic run-on title Westtexaspsychosculpture) delivers evidence that he continues to use photography as a vibrantly intentional visual outlet.

Wool’s prior photobooks are decidedly urban in their tone and attitude. Absent Without Leave from the early 1990s features grainy travel photos, where stray dogs, lonely trees, and snatched views are washed into darkly brash photocopied expressions. He continued this rawness later in the decade with East Broadway Breakdown, using the late night walk back from his East Village studio as his visual hunting grounds. Flash-lit alienation is the consistent mood of this series, where dingy sidewalks, graffiti-covered walls, abandoned junk, and echoing streets become a grim landscape of emptiness.

But Westtexaspsychosculpture exchanges the hemmed in bleakness of city streets for the broad open skies and vast flat scrubland of the area surrounding Marfa, where the artist is now a part-time resident. His newest photographs find him continuing to wander, taking stock of the world around him but doing so amid the dusty in-between zones of his new neighborhood, where the front and side yards of trailers and humble one-story houses extend into the expansive rocky desert and provide the raw material for his increasingly complex aesthetic exercises.

To say that the piles of junk and discarded debris left outside these places is a local version of found sculpture or even some improvised variant of installation art would be a conceptual stretch, but Wool takes these discoveries seriously, treating each assemblage and scattering with understated curiosity and respect. The best of his compositions follow in the footsteps of mid-1980s Lewis Baltz (Near Reno or San Quentin Point in particular), infusing the abandoned detritus with unexpected formal and textural elegance.

Wool’s studies generally consider the nuances of spatial relationships, teasing interactions, overlaps, and temporary geometries out of discarded tires, wooden pallets, cinder blocks, and stacks of construction materials. In some cases, a singular object centers the composition (a crashed car, a grounded boat, a sagging couch, a dented water tank), with other objects providing ancillary decoration – his bathtub filled with fluffy rolls of insulation incongruously mixes hard and soft. In other pictures, the effect is more all-over, with tangles of pipes, swirls of uncoiled hoses, and jumbles of electrical wire and duct tape providing linear density, while air conditioners, refrigerator doors, car parts, plastic crates, and rolls of old carpet introduce more geometric forms. And in a few cases, his finds feel overtly constructed, with three dimensional arrangements of pipes and two-by-fours (with a ladder or some tin sheeting thrown in for good measure) ordering space with rigorous Minimalist-inspired precision. In making these photographs, Wool’s eye seems to have been particularly voracious, seeing a version of sculpture in seemingly every bent bedframe, plastic cooler, wire mattress, and folding chair left in the dirt.

Another selection of Wool’s images step back from this up-close inspection to set the scene and see a wider view of the surroundings, and while many of these pictures echo the hollow emptiness of his cities (at least in ambiance), these photographs are generally less original. Solitary cows and dogs stare at the artist with knowing indifference, a tumbleweed blocks the road in a rainstorm, and stunted palms, isolated cacti, and scraggy trees provide a discouraging hint of natural landscaping, but these compositions aren’t as sophisticated or layered as the leftovers. A couple of images introduce a trace of Friedlander-esque visual humor, from a BUMP roadsign placed along a perfectly flat hardpacked street to a plastic snowman decorating a dry backyard, but in general, Wool uncovers more muted blemishes than beauty in West Texas, even when its quirks coalesce into something with momentary grace or interest.

This is a photobook that would have benefitted from a heavier edit, as a few too many forgettable images have been interleaved with the stronger photographs. But this extra chaff doesn’t detract much from the power of Wool’s observations – he’s brought the swagger of the city to the open country, and found more connection points and resonances than we might have expected. If pared down and tightly organized, Westtexaspsychosculpture might plausibly fool some New Topographics scholars if presented without context or attribution, as it appears to be rooted in an examination of the consequences of cheap housing built in unsustainable territory. But in this case, Wool isn’t making particular judgments or pronouncements – he’s simply examining his new environment with the exacting eye of a mature artist, finding formal complexity and visual entertainment in nearly every patch of unforgiving hardscrabble existence.

Collector’s POV: Christopher Wool is represented by Luhring Augustine in New York (here). In contrast to the robust auction activity surrounding his paintings, Wool’s photographs have very little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    I’m a sucker for this kind of photography, and unusual for a painter, most non-photographers don’t get it.

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