In the past I compared New York artist Brian Wood’s painting style to that of the late surrealist/West Coast oddball John Altoon. On a recent visit to Wood’s studio—in midtown Manhattan—I saw a painting that made me think instead of Philip Guston’s last works. Take a look at that pair of worn-down shoes above and tell me you don’t see it too.

In that sense, and others still, Wood is something of an artistic antiquarian; his paintings a veritable preservation society. Take the newest one in mention—titled “End of the Line” (2016)—with its framing device along the top edge: a mix of painterly arabesque and gothic decorative motif. There is the strong hint of anatomical illustration too, ever-present in Wood’s current style, compounded by the faint orb shape to the left, which is almost Da Vinci-like in the way it fills the margin with something diagrammatic.

"End of the Line" (2016), oil on canvas.

“End of the Line” (2016), oil on canvas.

Yet to the extant that Wood’s work is retro—call it neo-surrealism, gothic expressionism, psychedelic art, whatever—it also follows no clear historical program. Admittedly, the works are begun in the surrealist automaton fashion and reshaped by the emergence of cleaner and clearer lines (and ideas). But those ideas seem to me closer in interest to alchemy and pseudo-science than to Jungian psychology and a desire for shared mythologies. Doesn’t make them not surrealist, but it does once again call into question the usefulness of such labels in the present.

Whatever this painting does, the one thing we can safely say it doesn’t do is pander to notions of chic. Sure, the shoes are a nod to mass culture and to the 1920s comic book shoes that Philip Guston deployed in his inimitable works of the mid-to-late-’70s. But the overall sense is one of the painter absorbed in a world where technology is not a consideration. According to Wood himself, the painting was made in a near-hallucinatory state, with the artist working through the night in bleary-eyed mental and physical exertion.

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That is not to say that “End of the Line” doesn’t somehow capture the American Dream gone belly up; or the pop despair put forth by William Gibson and the cyberpunk writers of the 1990s, where the best hope on offer these days is one’s own sensorium: i.e. your hair, the clothes on your back, the few books and records you own, and an interior life lived mostly in cyberspace.

Perhaps I’m reading into it, but that dangling rope at the right side of the painting registers pessimistically, even if it lacks a contemporary reference to technology or pop culture. And because the painting quotes so many classical elements, and evokes vintage scientific illustration, the greater sense is one of evolutionary rather than social determinism. In other words: technology isn’t the means of our own demise; it’s merely an extension of an already doomed natural order. And yet there is light too.

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The noose hangs over a darkened void, ending at a ventricle-like shape colored in tertiary hues; it also dangles from a geometric shape, and from that void emerges the femur bones on which rest the old-timey shoes—none of which rely on a program of anatomical realism to hold them together. What is going on here?

In my reading, this painting evokes a similar sentiment to that of St. Augustine, who posited a City of God that is lived internally. For Augustine, any attempt to externalize our thoughts—be they of nations or collective institutions—are doomed to failure. For Wood, the shoes rest on a pillar which is backed by a spray of blood-red paint; the ghosts of his marks suggest shape even in the faintest areas of grey and indigo.

The irony is that thoughts have invariably externalized here, as they did with Augustine’s writings (as they do with all mystic works of art). They suggest a perceived internal structure that is externalized, even if that structure is compromised the minute it leaves the mind. Bees still make honey. Birds fly south for the winter. Painters paint. (Brian Chidester)

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