January 4th- February 4th 2008
Each day, Martin Wilner scavenges the papers for scraps of images and ideas to feed his art. In his show, More Drawings About History And Evidence, he reconfigures these found images—the pained face of a bedraggled Saddam Hussein, an elongated hand striking a match, an amused tree-frog or a minute copy of a de Chirico mannequin—and meticulously renders them in a network of minute black dots and crosshatches. Humans look like animals and animals become strangely human. Or they mutate like characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a face conjoined with a bird; a teddy bear with an assault rifle. Wilner creates one of these images per day and arranges them into the grid of a monthly calendar, a practice he has kept up since 2003.
Confronting Wilner’s work, we are left simultaneously alienated and empathetic, as if encountering biblical lepers or the demon-possessed. The son of Holocaust survivors and the product of a conservative Jewish upbringing, Wilner demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the fragility of the body and the horrors of hand-to-mouth survival. He often draws hands touching body parts, pointing fingers, grasping other hands, or raised in supplication. This elegiac quality endows even his organizing principle, the calendar, with a poetic resonance.
The artist sometimes forgoes images altogether, simply rendering found headlines in a delicate and childlike version of newspaper text. These headlines are often broken into three lines, so that they read like haikus: “Cosmetic Injections/ Expand to Points/ Below the Chin,” “An Israel/ Without/ Hope,” or “With costs rising/ treating back pain/ often seems futile.”
Wilner is also a practicing psychiatrist, and his work often seeks out the Freudian in cultural detritus. His characters seem trapped in the ether, anxious to break out. When they do, the contours of one figure will often flow into next with a darkly playful transition, as when the fingers of a distraught Colin Powell morph into the feet of a cloaked Abu Ghraib detainee. The calendar thus evokes an ongoing game of “exquisite corpse,” its format as conducive to improvisational decision-making as a surrealist “automatic” game. Perhaps this is why the id seems to bubble up from the gridded confines of the calendar square like foam from an uncorked bottle of champagne.
This “game” approach provides fodder for another group of drawings featured in the show, Wilner’s “subway” series, in which he chronicles the sensory experience of traveling for hours on the New York City subway system in vignettes and speech bubbles marching across the surface of a long sheet of paper.
Wilner’s tendency to locate his images against a backdrop of stark blackness suggests dream origins, reminiscent of Goya’s late paintings. And his use of caricature follows the model of artists from Breugel and Bosch to Hogarth and Daumier—in Wilner’s work, the methods of careful observation perfected by these masters yields a brutal truthfulness appropriate to a world in technological overdrive.
Wilner also shares affinities with the caricaturist Ralph Steadman and his literary alter-ego, Hunter S. Thompson. Like Thompson, Wilner probes America’s life on a public and a personal scale and acts as both the director and spectator of his own commedia, delineating a psychotic but chillingly accurate vision of our inner psyche that somehow still retains a certain innocence and even naïveté. The paradox of Wilner’s work is that its grotesquery embodies as much as disguises his poignant sensibility. His exaggerated imagery and regimented structure carve the frenetic news of the day into digestible bits, and churn them into history.
Josh Morgenthau is an artist and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.