by Maria Porges
In Thomas Cole’s painting cycle, The Voyage of Life, the journey from childhood to old age takes place on a boat, its shining form increasingly blunted by time and travel as it passes through rapids and inclement weather, from the dawn of childhood to the crepuscular dusk of old age.
In many of the paintings included in Heather Wilcoxon’s exhibition, Adrift, the elegiac moment of reflection suggested in Cole’s final canvas seems to have just taken place, as night falls. Over and over, with confident strokes, Wilcoxon conjures the skeletal forms of sea-bleached wrecks, seen from below, from the surface of the water itself, or from nearby land or a dock. Wilcoxon has lived on a houseboat for decades; her knowledge of the essential forms of hull and supportive ribs is something almost innate — like the familiarity trainers have of animals, or mothers of children, acquired through touch and proprioception as much as through vision.
The cast of characters that populated Wilcoxon’s earlier paintings has disappeared, and her palette has simplified. Deep blues, blacks and bloody cadmium reds dominate here, allowing the artist’s powerful brushwork to shine. In the two panels of What Was, the largest work in the show, the shadowy, night-dark hues of water and sky seem to almost press down on the ghostly remains of a ship spread across the rectangle’s bottom third. Multiple ladders leaning against its side suggest a massive scale, as if the boat is the size of a whale run aground. But we can’t be sure; there’s no defined distance or depth. As if to remind the viewer that this is imagined scenery rather than plein air observation– if there were any doubts—a deliberately-painted oval stroke of black, like a sign or cartouche, fills the lower right corner.
This oval shape appears again in Election, this time accompanied by an enigmatic wrapped form that suggests a shrouded body prepared for burial at sea. From these clues, it seems reasonable to conclude that the ship appearing over and over in these beautiful, deeply somber paintings is the ship of state referred to in Plato’s Republic. Our ship of state, to be precise: run aground, sinking, or burning, as in Battle, a wonder of a picture that manages to evoke Turner’s vast canvases of sea battles without looking anything like them. The burial at sea could be of the body politic, or democracy itself. In the end, however, I don’t think it’s the death of hope. These aren’t paintings of despair, but rather the calm observations of a survivor, reflecting on what has happened and describing what might lie ahead. Unlike Cole’s cycle of life, Wilcoxon’s eloquent vision, also on view in a concurrent exhibition at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, suggests that there still may be time — if very little — to find a course forward.
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Heather Wilcoxon: “Adrift,” @ Jack Fischer Gallery (Potrero Ave. location) through July 29, 2017.
Heather Wilcoxon: “At Sea” @ San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art through September 10, 2017.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.