Xylor Jane and B. Wurtz: Recent Work
Arnold Kemp, MFA in Visual Studies Chair, on the exhibition he curated for PNCA's Feldman Gallery + Project Space.
Situated specifically in Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Philip Feldman Gallery and Project Space, this exhibition hopes to incite a meeting between art objects and a conversation among artists. While one stands or sits among objects that evidence ideas, thinkers and things, the reason for the existence of educational exhibition spaces (that art is more than gossip about art, the art world, market prices, and art world personalities) is made abundantly clear. Here the artworks of two contemporary artists in particular, Xylor Jane and B. Wurtz, who have never shown together, are placed side by side, and this could become history or not; it all depends on how gossip spins the tale.
By theoretical definition this work is “contemporary,” but what does this mean? According to historian Hal Foster:
“The category of ‘contemporary art’ is not a new one. What is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment. Such paradigms as ‘the neo-avant-garde’ and ‘postmodernism,’ which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand, and, arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, “contemporary art” has become an institutional object in its own right: in the academic world there are professorships and programs, and in the museum world departments and institutions, all devoted to the subject, and most tend to treat it as apart not only from prewar practice but from most postwar practice as well.” (1)
If as Foster asserts that heterogeneity and lack of definition exemplify the contemporary, then this exhibition follows suit with a gathering of various artworks suggestive of various concerns. While it is not one great historically determined statement, this exhibition allows for the testing of visual and conceptual thinking. The works in the exhibition are made in a present tense, and accept the fact that art cannot keep up with the constant movements of people, information, politics, and money that define the 21st century. These artworks exist in the arrangement of very modest things and ideas and shows us some other way of being that is eccentric, quiet, and introspective in the face of, in the words art critic Roberta Smith, “ever more alarming varieties of conspicuous consumption: skyrocketing prices for newbie artists, look-alike blue-chip collections and artworks relying with increasing ostentation on large-scale, expensive materials and costly techniques.” (2) The works of B. Wurtz and Xylor Jane use classical and formal visual elements such as color, scale and symmetry while also speaking conceptually in order to translate experience and environment. Jane’s and Wurtz’s individual practices are defined by careful observation and consistent engagement with basic questions of life.
B. Wurtz, born 1948 and educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, has been exhibiting work since 1981. While Wurtz fittingly received a retrospective of his work (“B. Wurtz: Works, 1970-2011”) at New York’s Metro Pictures in 2011, his cryptic, even suggestively understated name, has avoided becoming that of an icon. Wurtz’s Cal Arts peers, such as Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, Jim Iserman, James Welling, Tony Oursler have had multiple museum showings, and Wurtz has worked quietly. From the underground Wurtz has influenced a generation of younger artists such as Vincent Fecteau, Noam Rappaport, Gareth Moore, and Fawn Krieger.
B. Wurtz’s body of work in its historical and cultural context provides a platform for examining the origins of such recent exhibitions as the New Museum’s Unmonumental, which explored the reemergence of sculptural assemblage in contemporary art, focusing on a specific form of contemporary sculpture that juxtaposes disparate elements for suggestive effect. Like the works in Unmonumental, Wurtz’s objects display an additive quality that gives them a distinct informality: conversational, provisional, they are un-heroic and seek to make arrangements of the crumbling symbols and broken icons of the present age. Wurtz’s arrangements often include color found in the world (because they are straight from the tube or are the color of objects he finds) and elements such as woodblocks, coat hangars, plastic shopping bags, handkerchiefs, buttons, sea shells, shells, nails, screws and wire. Wurtz arranges these humble materials and carefully chooses to present things in their existing forms. Hanging on the wall, standing in space, or suspended from the ceiling, Wurtz’s work makes the most of the discarded, the obsolete, the easily missed. One can imagine his travels as happening with one eye on the road and another looking for the next innocent item that may be brought into a conversation with art. While his work speaks a language of the visionary understatement, like that of Alexander Calder, Ray Johnson and Myron Stout, it also belongs in the camp of those works by students of John Baldessari, such as Troy Brauntuch and Jack Goldstein, who in their zeal to recycle images while burrowing beneath media culture have been named “The Pictures Generation.” One can imagine that this sort of recycling is somewhat of a way of life for Wurtz who has been making more art with less for over 30 years and reminding us of how to look for art in places where we least expect to find it.
Xylor Jane, born 1963, is a 1993 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. She has been showing her work for 13 years. Numbers and dates (measurements of space and time) are important to her. On November 11, 2011 (11/11/11) she came to the end of a well-documented project in which she sent 1,021 postcards to friends and acquaintances over a period of 1,777 days. Her additive painting style seems to flaunt decorative abstraction, while remaining conceptual or more accurately philosophical at heart. Her work has some relation to the paintings of Agnes Martin and Alfred Jensen and the content of Jane’s work is on its surface and in the abstract grid of small marks that she uses to create a unified image. The images represent concepts of counting and ordering information that exist in the world. In fact many of Jane’s paintings relate to her interpretation of the Fibonnaci sequence.
In mathematics, the Fibonacci numbers are the numbers in the following integer sequence:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…
By definition, the first two Fibonacci numbers are 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two.
Fibonacci numbers are used in the analysis of financial markets, in strategies such as Fibonacci retracement, and are used in computer algorithms such as the Fibonacci search technique and the Fibonacci heap data structure. The simple recursion of Fibonacci numbers has also inspired a family of recursive graphs called Fibonacci cubes for interconnecting parallel and distributed systems. They also appear in biological settings, such as branching in trees, arrangement of leaves on a stem, the fruit spouts of a pineapple, the flowering of artichoke, an uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pinecone. By connecting her practice of painting and installation to often simple arithmetic exercises, Xylor Jane deals in both complexity and simplicity, finding hidden curiosities and subtle patterns amidst swarms of numbers. Her rigorous execution of manually applied grids of dots and strokes of paint highlights the personal touch and commitment she brings to representing things in her life such as the number of near death experiences, a clock of her life rendered in days instead of years, day to day transactions and the translations of experience into visually pulsating patterns of numbers and colors.
This exhibition includes a painting of Xylor Jane’s called Via Crucis X Stripped, in which small muted yellow dots weave a spiraling repetition over and under other dots of muted pastel colors. This work is part of a series of recent paintings, Via Crucis I – XIV, that are influenced by Barnett Newman’s elegiac abstract series of canvases titled The Stations of the Cross, which he made in the late 1950 and early 1960s. There is almost a cosmic significance to these paintings. Balanced variations of the spectrum red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet express a kind of language of representation that Xylor Jane calls “a mental space…no place, no thing…just here.” (3) She has also referred to her paintings as “almost…sacred objects,” (4) as for her they are connected the wonder of a creation myth where everything is founded on its mathematical translation.
The tapestry like marks of Xylor Jane’s paintings correspond poetically with four works of B. Wurtz’ which hang like tapestries and are presented here. Wurtz humorously calls these works “bread paintings,” and much like Jane’s work they are a bit of a visual puzzle that could be seen as visionary maps composed of numbers and symbols. The Untitled (bread paintings) could be about life expectancy as the color-coding of disposable plastic bread tags signals to grocers the freshness of a loaf of bread. The bread tags represent an almost secret language regarding which day of the week the bread was delivered. There is no industry wide standard, but the colors often proceed alphabetically, Monday – Saturday:
Monday – Blue
Tuesday – Green
Thursday – Red
Friday – White
Saturday – Yellow
As it is, shoppers should never encounter more than two colors of tags on the shelf at any time for any one brand of bread, but as they exist in Wurtz’s tapestries they might be meant to transport us to contemplating our own eventual demise. Here Wurtz’s playfulness with symbols is evident for while universal wisdom states, “you are what you eat,” in terms relevant to the contemporary visual art world, one is only as fresh as what one consumes. In both the works of Xylor Jane and B. Wurtz, color is playful, enthralling and smart in inviting viewers into images and into the world. In their works color can humorously reference the body as well as the spiritual, visionary and contemporary.
Once the contemporary happens it is already passed. The biggest challenge for artists today is to make work that projects into an uncertain future, defines the moment of its making and shoots beyond that moment. Something in the works of Xylor Jane and B. Wurtz looks like a quiet refusal of the globalization of the present moment. Their work’s deliberate focus invites us to think and persist in locating extraordinary places from which to survey contemporary states of mind that feel amazingly inward-facing and local.
Xylor Jane and B. Wurtz: Recent Works is on view at the Feldman Gallery + Project Space January 17–March 24, 2012
1 Hal Foster, “Contemporary Extracts,” E-Flux Journal,
2 Roberta Smith, “An Artist Who Makes Much out of Very Little,” The New York Times, June 30, 2011
3 Trinie Dalton, “What is a Rainbow,” in Xylor Jane, (Canada and Picture Box, 2010), 3
4 Bob Nickas, “Rhythm and Opticality, “ in Painting Abstraction, (Phaidon Press Limited, London & New York 2009), 80