In a Silent Way

The key that may provide an entryway into the clean, crisp work of painter John Wilcox in Chapel, on view at the Barry Whistler Gallery, is serendipitously found on the wall that serves as the connective route from the gallery's main space to the smaller gallery in the rear. The piece, the oil-on-canvas "Rain on Waves," is as simple as it is misleading. On this square panel, Wilcox has constructed a black-and-white grid. Its horizontal gridlines are composed of interrupted flat, black lines; its vertical lines consist of raised white. Together, they form a perfect articulation of Wilcox's endeavor.

Wilcox's paintings can mistakenly be branded as what might be called neo-minimalism. His work alternates between large-scale panels dotted with tactile, pointillistic paint dollops or cross-hatchings and smaller, monochrome canvases. Both suggest a regressive move toward postwar abstraction or '60s color field theory. It's a quality seen in the four works in the main gallery. "Eternal Rest From a World of Damages--A Psalm of Mistakes Turning into a Miracle" is a large panel meticulously covered with dimpled dots of yellow and orange-yellow pigment. These halos of paint intersect to form rectangular sections of different concentrations of paint spots. Another work, "God's Eye(s) Opening/Closing--Obedience to Death = Universal Restoration + Purefood Pounding," forms a sort of eye glyph--a shape that also recalls the Christian fish symbol--by means of an intersection of X's created by thin lines of thickly applied blue paint.

In the smaller, rear gallery space, Wilcox opts for a different approach. The oil-on-linen "(Christ Jesus') Passion" and the oil-on-canvas "Grief (Child's Grave)" are monochrome panels on which Wilcox has painstakingly applied a single color and honed it into a rich layer that has the swirling, luscious finish of a wood stain.

That these works involve a spiritual quest is reinforced by Wilcox's notes on Chapel. He acknowledges that all of the exhibited works are informed by iconography or ideas found in religious belief systems. Some are Christian in nature; others find solace in Eastern mysticism, such as "Buddha Holding Lotus--Emerging + Returning." The religious connection may be as subtle as a shape--the bell-like form of Buddha, a dove's form--or more sophisticated, as when he uses red-orange as a synecdoche for blood at the crucifixion.

But it would be a mistake to read Wilcox's work simply as a minimal exploration of religion. Both minimalists and religionists are mired in associations of peace and purity. This may be less apparent in minimalism, but don't forget that when minimal works first started appearing in the late 1950s they were heralded as espousing a vocabulary that would enable viewers to experience better the "pure" qualities of form, color, space and materials, without the narrative or emotive artifice of composition. And while Wilcox's works do possess a certain tranquility, they're also underscored by a subtle, palpable tension.

It's a conflict most easily recognized in "Rain on Waves," which is his most deceptively minimal work here. Though consisting of only the most basic elements--black and white, horizontal and vertical--it also makes great use of their obvious implications. This painting, in fact, is a startlingly effective articulation of opposition. Everything is an inverse of the other: white, raised and vertical versus flat, black and horizontal. Its beauty is undermined by the play of the positive and negative forces that form it. What results is an eloquent, economical expression of an organic system at odds with itself.

In understanding this anxiety, one should know that Wilcox is an artist living with HIV. Just don't take this fact and arrive at that all too easily formed metaphor for his work--the body versus itself. The social and personal changes wrought by HIV/AIDS are more complex than that, a situation Cindy Patton recognized in her landmark book Inventing AIDS. In this slim examination of AIDS/HIV in America, Patton admitted she had a lofty goal: She was "seeking to understand the tensions between extremes [a tiny virus on one end, vast cultural shifts on the other]; to understand how systems of power both inhabit and enable communities to organize around AIDS; to understand who is allowed to speak and what is kept from view; and to provide at least a handful of strategies for moving through the vertigo produced by engaging in or being engaged by the HIV epidemic." Some of her hypotheses may ring less poignant since the book's publication in 1990, but its central argument remains valid: That in the HIV/AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s, prevailing thought found itself at a loss. And in the ensuing years of HIV/AIDS, the personal, political, medical and spiritual intersected to create new dilemmas that weren't accurately described, discussed and addressed by current wisdom.

Granted, looking for pseudo-psychological, socio-biological interpretations of art can be just as ill-advised a critical stance as the traditional art-historical view. Even so, it's a step that acknowledges that the scope of contemporary art is not limited to one purpose--that of commenting on the surrounding world in which it is created. The communication between artist and society runs both ways, making both actors in the shifting tides of culture's drama. Sometimes, an artist's mind may be more interested in exploring a personal expression for the roller-coaster ride of life as lived than holding up a reflective glass to society writ large. And if you want to be the one to imagine yourself walking the proverbial mile in those shoes and deem that endeavor fruitless, well, best of luck to you.

Contemporary art has more than its share of curmudgeons, critical voices that look around at the state of things and see nothing but an inflated sense of self-importance. The 20th century is as ripe with celebrated bad ideas as it is of certifiable genius, but it's no better or worse than the centuries that have preceded it, even in the hype-prone U.S. of A. That the past 100 years have witnessed an increasingly quicker motion through such evolutions and revolutions is without a doubt. But to claim that artists have become ciphers in blinders trying to create a big-picture interpretation of their times and failing majestically is misinformed at best and arrogantly incorrect at worse. The rapid pace of postmodern life is present in every human undertaking, be it in art or science, technology, popular culture and politics. And as with those social creations, previous paradigms of discourse don't always present an accurate description of the present. You simply have to be willing to give the work an opportunity to speak for itself, congratulatory and dismissive waves of popular opinion be damned.