File Note #1: Christopher Wool - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Mark Harris

Image as Noise Images References Biography Credits

Image as Noise

From the apparently disengaged patterned images of the mid-80s, calculatedly rolled onto aluminium panels, through the brutalist FuckEm text works stencilled in the early 90s, to the matted dreadlock entanglements of the recent flower and graffiti enamels, until the gestural wipe outs of these new works — all periods invariably using just black and white — Christopher Wool has set a course that teeters at the limits of what is tolerable as painting. Tolerable, that is, in different senses, for as they collapse the mechanical and handmade into each other as if enacting an error (‘can’t he use a stencil?, can’t he use a brush?’), these works restage the visual rhetoric of antisocial ad hoc street signage — advertisements obscured by tagging, whited-out graffiti, sidewalk spillage, hand-painted commands on garage doors. Wool’s works seem to become paintings according to a measure of emphatic presentness, like the sudden appearance, on rounding a corner, of the unencompassable directness of street graphics in their function as an anti-architectural visual terrorism. This is the aspect captured by Wool’s numerous installation snapshots, his paintings glowering back at us unapologetically from gallery and studio walls. Their mix of deskilled manual technique with basic mechanical processes, and of street iconography with motifs from the history of gestural painting, triggers aesthetic discomfort and results in images with the intractable functionality of signs. A kind of nervous breakdown of painting is visible in this commingling of antagonistic codes and we are riveted by the unsettling experience. Wool’s recent works overwhelm with their incident, by the mass of painted events, yet there’s the sense that the inconsequence of all this piling up may be exactly the point; that this matter which uninhibitedly floods the surface in a deluge of painterly reaction is like the stuff out there in the city, pressing into every pore of our bodies. These are urban paintings, not so much because of their superfice of graffiti and grunge, as by their enveloping noise articulated with finesse through gradations of car horn and tyre-screech unreasonableness; the criss-crossing conversations in the darkest East Village bars; the experience of distanced sounds on the same streets after midnight; the eerily muffled traffic after the first heavy snowfall; the reliable silence of that same neighbourhood before midday.

In this way, through the same plethora of unaccountable marks these paintings are very precisely tuned. The format of Wool’s paintings is without exception vertical, not landscape. This standing form is for a confrontational address and recalls the experience you always have in New York (an experience we like for its relentlessness) of being faced, or challenged, by buildings. And how is the noise drawn through this new work? What is happening with the paintings’ breakdown to which we have become attached? 

The overpainted cancellations, a motif of work since the mid-90s, are now the principal image. Columns of white enamel scud across the surface of screen-printed underpainting already drained of tone. These cancellations are brusque and jarring, like uninvited interruptions to an otherwise manageable experience. In a second group of works the underpainting is indifferently wiped away in a functional manner to leave a residue of dirtying gestures extending to all four sides. Amongst other things, here is a rehearsal of not being able to get rid of painting. Like a conjuring trick going off the rails, the harder the erasing, the more signifiers appear. And then in an especially perverse sleight of hand, as if covertly replacing a confusing map with its even poorer replica, Wool photographs these erasures and screens them onto linen, more or less the same size as the original (Untitled (P418), 2003). Sometimes, as with Untitled (P402), 2003, the replica of an erased work is screened over and obliterates the residue of actual painting. Even so, we can’t succumb for long to the illusion since the borders of the screens leave conspicuous right-angled lines across the smear strokes. In the ghostliness of their brushy weave (their ever-fainter physical appearance a decomposition that reverses gestural painting back towards nothing), they make a spectre of some distant examples of epiphanic painterliness like Willem de Kooning’s figures or Brice Marden’s Zen abstractions. Though this brings them into closer relation with mainstream New York painting, their dulling of immediate seductions leads them back to intolerableness as a productive discourse. They give the finger to the gamut of sensual gratifications that had become an ethical sine qua non of American factured painting since the late 70s. To put this antidote to seduction into practice Wool takes methods from other contexts to make art-like forms. It’s as if these paintings are made with the unconcern of someone cleaning up after a day’s house painting, wiping the surfaces more or less clear and getting rid of the excess paint on the roller by running it across the wall. Here is the move of painting blind, without a compositional motive or standard to privilege that looking which prevalues what is about to ensue. It’s worth going back to the idea of image as noise for a different analogy of the paintings’ sound. Wool’s text pieces and titles have incorporated snatches of song lyrics — from Richard Hell and George Clinton, for example — while his stencilled typeface resembles the handmade posters of punk bands, most obviously the graphic work of the English collective Crass. The surging noise of these new works, where gestural incident accumulates into a definite and singular tone, recalls the spartan texture of early punk, where one-chord guitar chopping makes the percussive body of the music. The resourcefulness of The Damned’s Neat, Neat, Neat, The Buzzcocks’ Breakdown, The Clash’s Complete Control or The Adverts’ One Chord Wonders lies in making relentless impact through cutting out all embellishments. Wool’s restriction to black and white, his restrained inventory of motifs, his retention of rough mechanical procedures, are left remaining after much of what constitutes painting is stripped away. His full-size screened reproductions of gestural originals are a more extreme renunciation that tests whether such work still has presence in a space. Once again these take us onto the streets which Wool has routinely photographed at night, in particular to the numerous shots of chain-link fences, security shutters and reflective windows as they impede our vision. The screened layers of Wool’s paintings function similarly as they accumulate texture from beneath and allude to the obscuring of prior imagery. In this play of limitations these latest works prolong the interaction between studio and street that has been so productive for Wool in maintaining a critical engagement with painting.


93 Drawings Of Beer On The Wall New York, self published (1984)

Untitled Cologne, Galerie Gisela Capitain (1988)

Black Book Cologne and New York, Galerie Gisela Capitain and Thea Westreich (1989)

Cats In Bag Bags In River Rotterdam,  Museum Boymans van Beuningen, with accompanying text by Glenn O’Brien (1991) ASIN 9069180693

Low And Slow Rome, self published (1991)

Absent Without Leave Berlin, DAAD (1993)

Shut Up Stupid I’m Working — The Complete Letters And Poems  (a.k.a. The Peter Problem) New York, self published (1995)

Incident On 9th Street special issue of Fama & Fortune Bulletin 18, Vienna, Pakesch and Schlebrugge (1996)

Focus New York, self-published (1999)

Maybe, Maybe Not Kusnacht, Inktree Editions (2001)

Pass The Bitch Chicken with Harmony Korine, Berlin, Holzwarth Publications (2001) ISBN 3935567022

Christopher Wool Vienna, Secession (2001)

East Broadway Breakdown New York, self published (2002 photocopy version)


Christopher Wool (b. 1955) is one of the most important and influential American artists of his generation. His practice incorporates photography, screen-printing, spray painting as well as more direct brushwork. He lives and works in New York City. Since the mid-80s he has had numerous solo exhibitions in the USA and Europe, showing regularly with Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York. He has also shown frequently with Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin and Cologne. In 1991 he had a major one-person exhibition at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam which toured to the Kunsthalle Bern and the Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. Subsequent solo museum shows have taken place at MoCA, Los Angeles (touring to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh and Kunsthalle Basel) in 1998; at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève in 1999 and at Le Consortium, Dijon, a show which travelled to Contemporary Arts, Dundee in 2002 — surprisingly his first solo show in the UK.

In 1988 he showed with Robert Gober at 303 Gallery, New York and his work was included in The Bi-national: American Art of the Late 80s at the ICA and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which travelled to Dusseldorf, Bremen and Minneapolis. Subsequently, he has been represented in many group exhibitions, notably in the Whitney Biennial, New York (1989); the Carnegie International 1991, Pittsburgh; Documenta IX, Kassel (1993) and in overviews of 20th century American art at the Kunsthaus Zurich (1997) and at the Whitney (1999 and 2002). Last year, his work was included in the 7th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art.



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Mark Harris is an artist and writer.