The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

All Issues
MARCH 2023 Issue
Critics Page

On Hats

Wallace Whitney, <em>Scenic Route</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 87x 75 inches. Courtesy Ceysson and Beneteire.
Wallace Whitney, Scenic Route, 2021. Oil on canvas, 87x 75 inches. Courtesy Ceysson and Beneteire.

For over twenty years, Canada has been artist led, as Sarah Braman and I still maintain studio practices in addition to the daily work of running the gallery. The most common question we get is how do you find time for the studio, the gallery, and family life? Honestly, the people that I know who are most successful do only one thing all the time. It is a personality type, different but as distinct as the trickster figure; but my alter ego isn’t Hermes. Maybe it’s a draft horse. I get a lot out of being part of a gallery, especially when the place is full and something exciting is happening. There are bumps and bruises as well, the price you pay to wear multiple hats. I suggest making sure one is a crash helmet.

I love talking to “regular” people in the gallery. Art is mysterious to many people, and I am aware that they are trying to understand the work through me, even if we are talking about the plumbing. I am also curious about what they are thinking. We don’t often get the opportunity to say, “hey, what do you care about?” Some people who come into the gallery seem entitled to our attention. They want you to serve them. Others are shy and intimidated, they come in asking, “is it ok if I look around”? Sometimes people have no idea where they are at all. When our gallery was in Chinatown, it was a well-known spot for an available bathroom. “Is this the museum with the bathroom?” someone once asked me. Yes, yes, it is.

My studio can be an equally complicated place, but there are less people around. In fact, no one is. Sometimes I worry about what is happening at the gallery when I am in my studio, and I fret about not being in the studio when I am at the gallery. While these sensations appear related, they aren’t. Nobody is asking me to make the paintings I make (at least overtly), but running the gallery feels like many people depend on me. That is the pressure of the gallery, and the pressure of the studio is that nobody is counting on me. My daughter recently asked me if I am an artist or businessman. It would be easier on me if I had a one-word answer for that question.

Working in the studio is the only way that I can be sure that what I say about art, particularly painting, has any basis in fact. I credit my partner Phil Grauer for reminding me of this fact constantly. The lived experience of art needs to be valued. I like how writing press releases tests my capacity to understand and empathize with the art we show. Writing them is challenging because you are writing about something that doesn’t exist yet. Sure, you can visit the artist’s studio, but that isn’t a show. It can feel like work sometimes, real work, so I need to sprinkle things into my life at the gallery that give me some sense of agency. For example, this June we are featuring a show of Denzil Hurley’s last paintings. Denzil was my main teacher, and a big reason I became an artist in the first place. He has been responsible for shaping many of my attitudes for a long time about the responsibilities and pleasures of being a working artist among other working artists.

I paint abstractly, working through my own brand of misread abstract expressionism. The paintings develop slowly over time. I add layers of often unrelated experiences on top of each other. The painting respirates when contrasts collide, like a storm of explosive gesture on top of a passage of tender daubs. The paintings reflect the episodic nature of my life. Sometimes I can devote days to them and sometimes the work at the gallery is all consuming. I like to use tools of my own design: sheets dipped in paint baths that are then tossed faceup onto surfaces, brushes and squeegees that I rig up to expand the size of marks. I think about artists I know and admire when I work. Many of them are Canada artists, so they become part of my practice.

I am woven into the practices of other artists as well. Lily Ludlow is an artist that Canada shows who obsessively sands down the surfaces of her paintings over and over, slowly finding the correct placement for her machine-like figures. When we need a painting for an art fair or a show, she loathes surrendering them. Lily always feels like she needs to hang onto them just a little longer. My job is to convince her that the paintings are done. We play a complicated cat and mouse game that involves many aborted late-night runs to her Port Chester loft. She knows I am coming and the pressure adds to the development of the work. She is a wily fox and I am a doughty plow horse in this relationship. Have you ever looked into the eye of a draft horse? I always think they seem to know more than they are willing to admit.

When I decided to do some teaching, the problem of having students became clear; when I discovered something new in my painting practice, I immediately tried to think of ways to communicate it to my students in lesson form. It was like I was painting in front of a mirror; it confused me about my motivations and allegiances. Artists should have the freedom to hoard information. That’s very unlike running a gallery, which should be done as a form of generosity, the reflexive habit of giving, pointed squarely at the hard edge of the market. Unlike teaching, the problems of an artist-run gallery aren’t very clear. The script is too wild and open. The uneasy marriage of capitalism and art is fodder for a thousand essays.

I often feel mute and carved out walking out of the studio. Then I go to a gallery event where I speak to people and words tumble out of my mouth. I barely recognize this guy who is making jokes and is thinking quickly on his feet. At that moment, I am the opposite of the studio plodder with a brush in my hand. That is an experience of community. I am forced to be more than I am prepared to be in order to participate with other people in exchange for gifts that can be appreciated only in retrospect.


Wallace Whitney

Wallace Whitney is a painter based in the Bronx. His work has been the subject of many solo exhibitions, most recently Braided Sky at Ceysson & Beneteire, New York and Patience Gift at Soloway, Brooklyn. Whitney is an educator who has taught at the University of Tennessee and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. His practice includes writing about art including catalogue essays for numerous artists and for the online magazine Artcritical. Whitney has curated exhibitions in the United States and abroad, notably Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces 1966–1976 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit in the spring of 2019 and Feed the Meter, Vol. I and II at Ceysson and Benetiere in Wandhof, Luxembourg in 2015 and 2018. Whitney is a co-founder of the artist-run gallery Canada.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

All Issues