Mauve drab

Henry Wolyniec + Melanie Essex at Whitney Art Works
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  August 17, 2006

WONDER OF WOLYNIEC Collage collision.
The diptych is a device you almost never see used properly these days.

Somehow the legacy of seriality has given artists license to use it even if they don’t really know why they’re doing it. The garden-variety diptych alludes to an internal dialogue that just might be worth paying attention to, gives the look of a work at odds with itself, a veneer of purposive formalism. But let’s face it, most painters who use it really could just as well have opted for a single unbroken picture plane and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Melanie Essex’s painting “First in the Park,” on the other hand, literally unfurls from the crease between the two canvases underlying her London cityscape. The placement of this gap is a crucial structural element, and so the diptych is its logical extension. Here the space that separates the planes and creates the diptych also staples the fabric of the sky to the dense mass of earth, compressing the city, pushing it into the ground. But the cut between the canvases doesn’t make a simplistic division, sky above and ground below, but rather carves a line through the zone where they intermingle, tops of buildings congealing in a tangle of turquoise and terracotta.

Her “Tower and Canal with Green Cloud” reminds us that London is a city of canals, remnants of forgotten forms of urban commerce that still thread throughout the city, above and below the ground. Like Fragonard’s quick sketches of the trees that he made while he walked, Essex’s paintings with their paste-up skies capture all that is in transit within a single frame; their lesson is that the sky is, and ought always to be depicted as, more substantial than the earth.

Just as recklessly employed and poorly understood by 21st century artists as the diptych is the gesture of giving one’s work the title “Untitled.” Marcel Duchamp famously said that the title is the most important part of any work of art, and being untitled is perhaps the most powerful condition that a work can find itself in.

Henry Wolyniec’s collages are all untitled, and for reasons one can learn to love. An untitled is like an abstention in democratic politics, and just as prone to misuse. The abstention is a move that registers, for the record, the fact that though the vote may be taken the issues were not settled. Once recorded, an abstention always hearkens back to the scene of debate, and to the debate’s various subtexts — most of which will have disappeared, been forgotten, or subsumed — one or more of which was likely what prompted one to vote not to vote.

ESSENCE OF ESSEX: Diptych used properly
The untitled work makes a feedback loop between the present and the time of the work’s creation, before one committed to a position for it or for oneself. Wolyniec’s work does not state a position but rather it invents one; it does not stand vis-à-vis something else. And so it can occupy that space indefinitely and increasingly intensively. Like Essex’s depiction-in-transit, it does not need to declare itself, but can instead create a substantive declaration out of not being positioned. It can say and say powerfully without saying something about something.

“Untitled 6” is the perfect title for a work that so elegantly traces the volatile power of beige. These collages are what could have happened if Mondrian had scrapped jazz and got into dominoes where he belonged.

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