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Between realism and abstraction

Andrew Paul Woolbright's "ShrineBeast" at Yellow Peril
By GREG COOK  |  October 1, 2014

A CURDLED CLOUD Woolbright's "Time Machine.'

Can sentiment be “an act of political resistance”? That’s an idea Andrew Paul Woolbright is testing out in his exhibit “ShrineBeast” at Yellow Peril Gallery (60 Valley St, Providence, through October 5).

At the center of the room is Time Machine, a NordicTrack ski exercise contraption modified by a wad of white foam insulation stuck on top that looks something like a curdled cloud. Woolbright invites you to slide your head into an opening in the side of the blob lined with pink fur such that it might bring to mind a vagina. (My head was too big to squeeze in easily, so I gave up out of fear of getting stuck in there. Psychoanalyze the meaning of that, Dr. Freud.) Inside, I spied a little video screen showing repeating footage of people jogging. I couldn’t tell, but I’m told it’s video of George W. Bush jogging on the morning of September 11, 2001.

So Time Machine is a device to foster pretty dreams that maybe temporarily transport us back to the seeming calm before everything burned that sunny day.

“When I met my wife, I found myself able to return to an optimism, sincerity and sentiment that I eventually recognized as pre-9/11,” Woolbright writes. He describes it as “Clinton era American optimism, love and sentiment in opposition to the millenarianism, nihilism, irony, slacktivism, failed neo-liberalism, and the resurgence of cultural conservatism we are currently experiencing.”

It feels like too rosy a description of the Clinton era, but there’s no doubt that we could all use some loving after our post-9/11 monster years of wars, torture, drowning New Orleans, financial collapse, Gulf oil spill, and killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Much as I want the Time Machine to rewind back to the beginning, to be an act of daydream resistance against all this pain, what I feel is its inevitable failure.

FOR THE ROSES A frame from 'The Last Romantic.'

In Woolbright’s 11-minute video The Last Romantic, he sits in the back of a white stretch limo, naked except for roses that wrap around his face and trunk. He wiggles his toes in a pile of flower petals. His hand pets a white beaded purse-thing on the seat beside him, suggestively fingering its opening.

The video, a clunky, Matthew Barney-on-zero-budget affair, cuts to a scene of Woolbright projectile vomiting roses. It then shows him and his wife, naked save for roses dotting their skin, sitting (via the magic of video effects) in a golden palace room, picking flowers off of themselves and passing them to each other, as rose petals swarm in the air above. The video cuts to a scene of him squatting naked save for some roses in a field of tall grass like a schlubby Pan.

In his oil painting Fort of the ShrineBeasts, a nude man and woman peek out of a makeshift tent of bed sheets set up under the shade of a tree as if for a picnic. But here the artist and his wife have blank red eyes and marble white skin stained bloody red — perhaps from the roses garbing them, but they look like wounded mannequins or zombies. Rather than optimism and romance and tenderness, in many of his scenes it feels like Woolbright is portraying romantic relationships as bloody ruins.

Which I don’t think is what he intended. The intriguing gonzo rituals he creates for his videos and paintings leave you with powerful feelings — weird, disoriented, sordid, sexy, wary, curious feelings. And the guy can paint — large and lush confections in rose reds and leafy greens melting along the boundary between realism and abstraction. I look forward to seeing more.


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