– Henry James, “The House of Fiction,” preface to The Portrait of a Lady
Had Henry James been a painter, he might have written of the “house of art”; the metaphor holds up well across genres. On its surface, the conceit seems generous: so many windows accommodating so many points of view. But who gets to enter the house and perch at a window, field glass in hand? Such a privilege has not been granted equally. Canonical “houses”—of literature or art—remain overwhelmingly white and male, and newcomers of different backgrounds or genders struggle to gain those coveted window spots.
Paula Wilson’s oeuvre addresses this issue directly—at times almost literally. Her work stages a series of dramatic encounters between Wilson’s own distinctive style—sometimes embodied by a Wilson-like avatar—and that canonical “house of art” into whose windows she dares insert herself.
Wilson seems to plane over the history of art, shaking up categories and dissolving boundaries between genres, nationalities, historical eras, and between nature and culture. Then, she floats down to occupy the new spaces she has opened up—and often those spaces are actually windows. Sometimes, for example, she appears in her own work as a saint-like figure in a stained-glass window. She can morph into a looming ocean goddess, or a silhouetted head. At other times, Wilson makes herself known solely through her style—distinct and knowable despite the diversity of an oeuvre spanning video, decorative arts, printmaking, fashion, collage, and performance. Her work blends joy, wit, virtuosity, and conceptual brilliance, and folds it all into an ongoing critical meditation on the place the artist is staking out in the “house of art.”
Wilson has entitled her latest solo exhibition (at Miami’s Emerson Dorsch Gallery) Salty & Fresh, and the phrase is apt. The words describe nature—two types of bodies of water (and the artist meditates often on pools and oceans as spaces of creativity). But “salty” and “fresh” can also speak of culture: of human expression and behavior. Something “salty,” like a joke or a story, is a little sexy, a touch risqué. And “fresh” can mean both “new” and “impertinent,” defying tradition or authority. Wilson is indeed “fresh,” confronting the gatekeepers of art history with her originality. Often too, she is salty, incorporating erotic images into her work—notably, her trademark: the curvy feminine derrière, Wilson’s symbol of female (perhaps especially African-American) sexuality.
Wilson wants us, precisely, to see and to contemplate seeing. Windows, cell phone screens, and cameras abound in her work, which showcases the drama of looking. Out of Light (the piece opening her Miami exhibition) presents the exterior of a stained-glass window. Viewed this way, it’s just a dark pane in a brick wall (adorned with a woman’s bare buttocks, Wilson’s winking analogy for considering the “backside”). The figure of a regal woman is discernible in the glass, a white dove perched on her outstretched arm. This small window entices us to enter the building and appreciate the stained glass from the other side, where its brilliant colors will be set ablaze by the sun. In other words, Out of Light, beckons us to follow Wilson into the house of art, to witness her exuberant and provocative work.
In Lady with Reflection Pool, the stained glass comes alive as a woman (resembling the figure from Out of Light) stands amid shifting patterns, in a Cubist-inflected reinterpretation of cathedral windows. We espy what looks like a hooded knight alongside a distinctly Picasso-esque decorative fragment, while the palette and visual rhythms conjure Romare Bearden. But as Wilson pays homage to these artists and styles, she makes her own statement: they are the pool upon which she reflects. Here, as elsewhere, she turns stained glass—that most iconic of medieval, European, Christian iconography—to her own purposes. There is no reverence of either ancient saints or the overwhelmingly male art-historical canon. Instead, there is light and sun, movement, nature, and—crucially—women. A fuchsia sunset hovers, melding nature and culture. Three dancing feminine skirts or tassels sway in an upper corner. And Wilson’s avatar stands in the foreground, outlined in light, gazing right at us, occupying her own pane in the sanctified house—the church—of art, or perhaps, overtaking the building entirely.
We see this theme continued in the two icon-like “stained glass” pieces entitled Searching, wherein lone female figures float amid clouds, lost in contemplation not of psalm books, but of cell phone screens. In Stained Glass Vision, Wilson depicts herself as an artist-magician, creating in a kaleidoscopic, stained glass world where colored fragments take shape in her hands, and nature and art seem to tumble together and separate seamlessly.
In the monumental Stained Glass Sisters, Wilson offers a double self-portrait in negative and positive (one face in shadow, the other in light). Below, the riotous, collage pattern of two “stained glass” skirts flares out. With its bejeweled ornamentality, the piece recalls Gustav Klimt. Look closer, and you espy a dense world of very different references: shards of ancient-looking pottery (though one seems to depict a mini-van), African-American portraits (one looks like Maxine Waters, but that might just be a hopeful hallucination), and more classic Wilson iconography: wide, Byzantine icon-style eyes painted on buttocks. The skirts are cinematically alive, crackling with Wilson’s irreverent blend of the ancient and contemporary. They suggest the propulsive, creative force driving the woman who wears them, the treasure trove of images, past and present, from which she crafts her aesthetic.
In her video, also named Salty & Fresh, Wilson returns as a gigantic sea goddess in a massive, collaged skirt—Poseidon as feminist artist. As the goddess paints faces onto three nude derrières of people disguised as Greek vases, picnickers observe through sunglasses and cell phone cameras. Wilson has restaged Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, countering that famous depiction of idle bourgeois recreation with a startling scene of female creative power, ancient myth, and living vessels who stare “cheekily” back at the oglers.
So much of Wilson’s work suggests this type of iconoclasm. Mooning features a callipygous giantess’s derrière, in fish-scale hot pants adorned with a crescent (is this our sea goddess again?) punningly “mooning” through a window. Inside, a multi-cultural still-life combines the Mexican-American traditions of Wilson’s home state of New Mexico (the tableau of the dog and military portrait), with ancient Greece (a painted urn), Caribbean culture (the women painted on the urn), and 21st-century hi-tech (the women wear virtual reality goggles).
In Inside Out Wilson creates paintings within a painting, in the cabinet d’amateur tradition. A Kara Walker-style, silhouetted head in the foreground might stand in for the artist as spectator. We see three versions of Wilson’s paintings here: the first leans toward Cubism, the second skews more Impressionist, and the third is most recognizably a Wilson (with Wilson as subject). Here, the artist seems to consider our experience, how spectators absorb her world of references, her riot of colors, patterns, icons, and motifs. Watching her watch herself, we have, in a sense, turned the spectator experience “inside out.” Wilson has granted us a new lens to peer through, a new way of looking—through the window she has carved out, the window of her perception.
RHONDA GARELICK is the author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History. She is Professor of English and Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.