“Depiction’s Conflict (or Undoing Descartes): The Paintings of Ken Wahl”
by Saul Ostrow
“Science, technology, philosophy, art and human affairs confront respectively the constraints and resistences of specific materials which they loosen and articulate within given limits. They do this with the help of codes, know-how and historical teachings which lead them to close certain doors and open others. The relations between the infinite modes of these materials and the infinite attributes of the universe imply the different possibilities of each of these activities.”
from “Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm”
I have come to understand Ken Wahl’s painting to be the product of a restless search for the means to give representation and presence to a complex vision of human existence. This entails the emotional, theoretical and symbolic orders that form our reality. To this end, he approaches paint as a medium capable of both portraying and reproducing the conditions of consciousness, which he conceives of as an economy of energy circulating between the mind and body. Concerning his recent work, Wahl wrote that he is intent on “trying to tune into the emotional source from which ideas take their shape” and that he would have his paintings not only “touch upon the emotions that are a base – like energy – for almost every endeavor, but also have them portray levels of consciousness….”
Wahl’s aspiration and his view of painting’s potential is derived from the early 19th-century Romantics’ belief that the depiction of ideas could be given actual emotive presence. This is what lead subsequent generations to believe that art as an expression of our subjectivity could undo the Cartesian division of mind and matter. Wahl takes up this latter project not as a means to affirm his being or give vent to his emotions by engaging us in his exotic fantasies, but instead as the means by which to reestablish a dialogue between experience and knowledge, empathy and expression, the aesthetic and the conceptual, as well as the signified and its signifier. To grasp the unity that Wahl would give expression to, requires that the transaction between phenomena and awareness be likened to the energy that pulsates within the most static of masses.
What differentiates Wahl’s project from its romantic antecedents is his Enlightenment-like faith in technology and science as the means by which we will extend our awareness of ourselves and the world. To depict our new (non-organic) nature, Wahl employs the alterity and materialism of “L’informel” and the erotic logic that arises from Surrealism’s representations of the irrationalism of the unconscious. Using these to convert the imminent — empty — space of the modernist picture plane into a virtual one, he reorders the intangible scientific and philosophical abstractions by which we have come to understand and structure our consciousness. Consequently, he produces enigmatic images whose qualities both replicate the fluid continuity from which we construct our reality as well as from which we seek to divorce ourselves.
Although this description of Wahl’s work might conjure up images of Juan Miro, Roberto Matta — or Arshille Gorky, such similarities are more formal than conceptual. Wahl’s work does not concern itself with political allegories, social regimentation or the symbolic function of the everyday world. Instead his approach is similar to that of Cezanne, Giacometti, Matisse and Francis Bacon whose works are derived from the late 19th century Symbolists, who used the latest literary and scientific theories of their time to express emotional states and sensations that were thought to have universal significance. In this analogy, Wahl’s work can be likened to that of Gustave Moreau, if we substitute post-structuralist thought and microbiology for romantic literature and archeology in that they both depend on the psychological and sensual.
Wahl, like Moreau, seeks the reality behind appearances which also includes the very images he makes, for he understands that signs are all too often confused with their meaning. Wahl’s ability to make his work at once self-referentially conceptual and phenomenal, indicates his struggle to maintain an Aristotelian balance between the “things” we experience and how we represent them to ourselves. Such an awarenes of representation’s conflicted nature also requires that Wahl engage in a process of trial and error, false starts and intuitions, for what he pictures has no correspondence in our day-to-day world. By way of acknowledging this dilemma, Wahl’s pictures/paintings function both perceptually and symbolically, reproducing the flux of his subject. This dynamic is what sets the appearance and aesthetic of Wahl’s paintings in opposition to the narrative forms he deploys. Therefore, while Wahl’s imagery is derived from cosmology, sub-atomic physics, technology, biology, microbiology anatomy and nature, the resultant paintings appear less concerned with the actual dynamics of the realms they reference than with their aesthetic and metaphorical possibilities.
Starting with diagrams and photographs found in scientific books or on the internet, Wahl proceeds through drawings to develop their imagery into metaphors for themes identified by such terms as “Radiation,” “Opposition,” “Transformation,” “Conduction,” “Penetration,” “Explosion.” For example, radiation comes to be portrayed as a glowing bar with a swirling network of lines indicating the electrons it gives off, and then as a pattern of wavy lines that are used in cartoons to indicate heat. In constructing such images, Wahl objectifies their stolen appearances and fantastic forms by means of a painterliness that fluctuates between the grandiosity of the Baroque, the virtuosity of the Rococo and Impressionism’s dissolution of form as in the gestural brushwork of “Molecular Swell,” 1995, where we find references to mimetic codes ranging from those of Futurism to science fiction illustration.
If the fact that Wahl’s paintings are populated by images with mechanical and biological references that allude to a form of specificity and corporeality seems antithetical to his goal of giving expression to the fluidity and immateriality of consciousness, I have come to understand that there would be no way to make his subject explicit within the confines of abstract painting. While our consciousness may be ordered solely by representation (at least this is the consensus of most recent theorizing about the role of language), its content is much broader and complex; therefore, this strange synthesis of painterly process, figuration and appropriation are pertinent to Wahl’s subject. The hallucinatory quality of a painting such as “Superconduction Mist,” 1998, with its machine-like forms emanating from a field of elemental incidents, may be read as an allegory. Its subject can be read as literally representing how the discourse networks that combine the vanguard ideas of science with parallel thoughts in other fields emerges from the general economy of matter and reflection.
Despite the illusionism and naturalism that dominate such earlier works as “Spinal Projection,”1995, and “Binary Flow,”1995, Wahl’s work has consistently been informed by a self-conscious approach to making even the most illusionistic image coincide with his subject’s metaphorical attributes, rather than their physical properties. For instance, the speed of energy and the indeterminacy of the molecular world’s unnameable forces find their equivalent in the movement of the brush as it transforms touch to vision, and materiality into representation. This metamorphizing of such abstractions lead us to understand that these pictures represent allegorical, non-linear, symbolic narratives of the alternating libidinal and ethereal states that inform and drive our conception of reality.
An indication of Wahl’s commitment to giving representation to the changing states of consciousness can be found in the fields of color and process that form the images in “Organic Network,” “Genetic Inlay,” and “Superconduction Mist,” all of 1998. In these paintings, he has de-emphasized the mimetic aspects of his figural representation by making them intrinsic to the identity of the visual field and space they occupy. All one needs to do to understand this is compare a painting such as “Electron Spray,’ 1998, to that of “Superconduction Mist, 1998. What Wahl has done is portray differing states of consciousness by moving each painting respectively in the direction where physically and practically, he achieves the resonance of depth and illusion through the immediate and evident means of merging figure and ground. Thus Wahl’s surfaces with their layers, glazes, oil mediums, varnishes and pigment indicate that portrayal (even in a portrait) is incidental compared to what is finally represented within and behind its imagery.
Considering the complexities of thought, representation and the cross currents of history that I have described here, one can imagine Wahl’s recent paintings as constituting a map of the virtual discourse networks formed by sensation (experience) and cognition (conception). By mapping the terrain that coincides with the phantasmagoria of disembodied images and experiences that are a consequence of the development of the technologies of communication and reproduction, Wahl’s project explicates the all too human conflict that has afflicted Western culture since the Enlightenment — that is our desire for transcendence and emancipation tends to devolve into a vulgar materialism (instrumental logic). This combination of conceptualism and aestheticism makes it possible for us to recomprehend paint as a medium capable of giving representation to both meditations on existence as well as inducing a type of sensuous (optical) pleasure whose effect can supplement its metaphorical content. Therefore, Wahl’s work not only forms a pictorial, but also a voluptuous index to the ever-evolving library of the mind.
Saul Ostrow is a critic, curator and the editor of the book series “Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture,” “Bomb Magazine” and “Lusitania Press”. He lives and works in New York City and teaches theory and art history at New York University and The School of Visual Arts.