Paula Wilson: Floored at Williamson Knight

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Paula Wilson: Floored at Williamson Knight

By James Knowlton March 27, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


In Williamson Knight’s latest exhibition, suitably and simply titled Floored, New Mexico–based artist Paula Wilson has created elaborate prints that present as tapestries and silk rugs. Two prints hang like tapestries and greet you from the street-facing windows. Picnic (2018) depicts a scene along a creek embankment, with bread, butter, citrus fruits, and a book of African cubist art resting on an otherwise empty red mat. The second window piece, Another Time Today (2018), looks more aged, as if it were once walked on as a rug but has since been retired as a tapestry. Its imagery is ornate, with flourishing red and yellow loop flowers cascading down its top edge as two women stand below and reach toward one another (perhaps to share the vase of flowers between them). Wilson is a mixed-media artist who utilizes printmaking, painting, woodcut, collage, and sculpture within her prolific works. One experiences vivid and saturated scenes throughout the entirety of Floored, where fauna and flora become unique composites of narrative as well as pattern.

Muslin, printed to mimic wooden floorboards, takes the place of typically white exhibition walls and becomes the backdrop for several prints. These pieces take the shape of rugs. Some depict a formalist appreciation for patterns, while others feature gestural bodies and patterns in movement, working in tandem. Throughout the show there is an impression of lively, spontaneous gesture and movement in the form of dance. This is best evidenced within Cut a Rug 27 (2018), In the Desert: Mooning (2016), and a small but mighty cherrywood sculpture titled Mooning (2018). The composition of Cut a Rug 27 blends the bodies between the foreground and background in a rich gradient of primary colors. The wall pieces, though inherently flat, still maintain a component of multidimensionality. With the aid of the collagraph process, a printmaking method in which materials are affixed to (most commonly) wood or cardboard, the works also maintain a unique diversity of surface and texture.

Toward the back of the room are two large tapestry prints affixed to wooden slats set perpendicular to the floor. They create curved partitions in the room, harkening to the posture of the body and its potential for movement through space. Repeated throughout the tableaus one sees the curves of fruit, pottery shards, a CD-ROM, yellow flowers, and vessels. Vessels are a recurrent symbol in Wilson’s work, as she explores her own Black, biracial femininity and the labor this requires. Vessels have historically been utilized to reference the feminine body through the parallels in their receptivity and nourishment alike.

An additional, muted beige piece lies on the floor in the path to the gallery’s back room. Wilson invites people to walk upon it for the duration of the exhibition; the piece becomes worn and imprinted with footsteps via this activity. Through the artist’s play with wall and floor coverings, one considers the mutable boundaries of relational space and sees them as flexible within the room. On opening night, the artist herself wore patterns reminiscent and reflective of the ones on display. Her being and social movements appeared to activate the wall works as she weaved through the crowd.

The experience of Floored asks us to reconsider the architectural conversations at play within the space—and this line of questioning is not Paula Wilson’s first foray into the appropriation of traditional forms of building adornment like tapestries and rugs. In her previous works, such as Salty + Fresh at Emerson Dorsch (March 2017), she utilized the visual language and motifs of stained glass to express the figural depiction of Black, biracial femininity and experience. In a 2017 exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, she installed “six columns in the gallery’s center [as] a reimagining of the Athenian Acropolis’s caryatids—supporting marble pillars carved as draped female figures.”1 Wilson is able to appropriate the tools of antiquity and colonialism in order to re-create, retell, and transform her personal and historical narrative. She elevates her own historical narrative and experience of body, introducing an alternative to the traditional imagery found in those institutions.

One can see she views the body as a process and amalgamation of fragments collectively woven together to enact presence in space. Specifically, her previous works and current play on tapestries illustrate critical examinations of viewership and the body within the contexts of Classical and Renaissance-era makership, as well as the art historical imagery produced by spiritual institutions. Her inquiry into labor and the body goes further when one considers the work involved in the traditional weaving of tapestries and rugs. Rugs and tapestries specifically connect back to the maker—their style, patterns, and materials speak to a culture and place. They tell narratives and they speak to a craft that traverses generationally, referencing also how one encounters their own history. The work expresses past, present, and future possibilities. In perhaps the exhibition’s most pointedly narrative piece, a young girl with braids and a bright aqua smock stands before her own shadow, exultingly.

Paula Wilson: Floored is on view at Williamson Knight in Portland through April 14, 2018.

Notes

  1. "Paula Wilson: The Backward Glance,” Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, http://www.bemiscenter.org/art/exhibitions/paula-wilson.html

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