Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Jamie Wyeth doesn't have a clue what it's like not to be immersed in art. He grew up in the studio of his father, Andrew Wyeth, one of the artists whose work defined 20th century American art, which itself lay in the shadow of another legendary studio, that of his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth. Even so, the credit for his own artistic stature belongs to him alone. Of course his famous family made possible his early professional success, but even as a teenager his technical skills were immense, and to the most casual observer it's obvious that his work is the result of a lifetime of serious toil.

So it was a privilege for me to attend last night's opening of his new exhibition, “Seven Deadly Sins,” where he dressed up that tired old Catholic concept in gull's garb. Living in coastal Maine, Wyeth has drawn and painted gulls all his life, and it shows. Each piece (the exhibition consists entirely of gull portraiture in mixed media) is drafted and painted with supreme confidence. Seven of them form the base of the show—each one representing one of the famed sins: Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Envy, Sloth, Greed and Pride. These are painted on handmade paper and floated upon a slightly larger sheet painted with fluorescent lobster-trap buoy paints, effectively rimming each image with a harsh suggestion of hellfire. Seven more gull portraits complement the show, and a large corrugated cardboard piece, Inferno, anchors the whole in place.
In a formal discussion with curator Michael Komanecky last night, Wyeth spoke of the conception of his idea, watching gulls and imagining these medieval principles reflected in their behavior. He described them as “nasty” birds, saying, “they're not doves!” (Of course, doves are not doves, either.) This is where my problems with the exhibition lay, and I couldn't help regard it with the eyes of a naturalist along with those of an artist. The anachronistic list of seven sins is a silly and useless tool for humans, not to mention other vertebrates. Gandhi updated the list with his own, more sophisticated version:

-Wealth without Work
-Pleasure without Conscience
-Science without Humanity
-Knowledge without Character
-Politics without Principle
-Commerce without Morality
-Worship without Sacrifice

Better for people, but try to characterize these principles using gull portraits.

There's a long tradition in western thought, beginning with the expulsion from paradise, that nature is something base, to be overcome--that we should yearn for a system where “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” As the “War on Terrorism” creates an international terrorist movement, this “red in tooth and claw” view of a corrupt natural world is corrupting the natural world, and by overlaying his beautiful exhibition with this philosophically lightweight theme, Wyeth undermined the whole to a regrettable degree. Of course, none of the seven sins are sinful in themselves*, only in certain contexts, and the only way to find “sin” outside of human culture is by such lowest-common-denominator reduction.

That said, the paintings are wonderful, and should be seen. The show runs through May 22nd at the Salt Salt Lake Art Center. Admission is free, and a decent, reasonably-priced catalog of the show is available.

*(well, maybe greed)
upper: GREED (2008) by Jamie Wyeth, mixed media on handmade paper 34.5" x 24.5"
lower: photo of Michael Komanecky and Jamie Wyeth by CPBvK


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