Photo Courtesy of Shulamit Nazarian
While the paintings of Wendell Gladstone’s Fever Pitch at LA’s Shulamit Nazarian gallery are figurative in form, the ambiguity of the narratives they propose leans more in the direction of the abstract. In turns sensual, desirous and anxious, the dreamy scenes they depict are too ambiguous to be read as a direct sociopolitical critique, yet they carry with them the heavy longing, confusion and excitement of a culture overloaded with decadence and fear.
Gladstone’s deft use of color permeates the exhibition, with mustard yellows, acid greens and luscious pinks intermingling in beautiful, surprising ways. While one figure’s leg or face might be rendered realistically in an airbrushed flesh tone, that same figure’s arm could be a teal or purple, their torso a vivid blue, subtly mirroring the surreal nature of our current cultural climate in their not-quite-normal application.
Wendell Gladstone, Silent Partner (2017), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 36 inches
A closer inspection of paintings such as Silent Partner (2017) reveals hidden layers of transparent gel medium that provide the paintings with visual texture, the glossy sheen of the medium contrasting with the matte intensity of the paint. This technique, which Gladstone employs frequently, is also a subtle reward for the viewer’s physical presence in the gallery; it is hard to imagine these details reading well on Instagram.
Another omnipresent gesture is the presence of smaller, simplistically rendered figures that interact with the larger, archetypal figures of the paintings. In Voodoo and You Can Go Home Again (both 2017), these smaller figures serve as a support system, literally holding up the larger bodies that dominate the picture plane; in Moon In My Mirror (2017) they seem to worship the archetypes, in Whistle (2017) they cower in fear. The variety of emotions depicted in the relationship between the two types of bodies seems to parallel the complex and often tenuous relationship between the masses and the elite.
Wendell Gladstone, You Can Go Home Again (2017), acrylic on canvas, 78 x 48 inches
A pair of golden high heels dons the feet of several female figures in the exhibition, a trope that is used too repetitively to be arbitrary, yet too loosely to be exactly defined. They can be read as a symbol of wealth, gender, decadence or, more likely, all of the above. In Solid Gold (2017), for instance, a couple engage in a heteronormative dance move that splays the female figure’s body across the canvas. Lines that mimic breastmilk burst out of her nipple as she simultaneously spits champagne from her mouth, rendering her both an object and a symbol of consumption. Meanwhile a menacing male figure beneath her eagerly bites into her golden high heel, suggesting that the lavish display of women’s bodies is often little more than a power move motivated by the appetites of men.
Having formerly used more direct sociopolitical and historical references in his paintings, Fever Pitch marks a move away from the specific and towards the general for Gladstone, reflecting the collective confusion and indecipherability of our times. What we are left with is a destabilized subject position, an uncertain narrative, some impressive color combinations, textures and a pair of killer golden heels.
Wendell Gladstone’s Fever Pitch is on display until February 17 at Shulamit Nazarian.