Conservative representational artists may have strived to craft the illusionary appearances of the figures and scenes they painted, but they never expected their works to be mistaken for the subjects they were based upon. In the same way, classical sculptors aren't likely to encounter patrons who try to shake hands with their statuary.
So when Cleveland Institute of Art instructor Royden Watson describes his work as "traditionally representational," he is so humble as to be misleading.
In So, his new show at the near-East Side gallery Proximity, Watson has produced a series of works that resemble found-material installations of plywood, scotch tape, and paper, but are actually uncanny acrylic and oil paintings. Here, layered paint takes on the texture of wood grain and the crinkled edges of a sticker with such realism that the viewer is fooled at all but the most intimate distances. In Watson's own words, they are "paintings becoming objects."
Those paintings begin as smooth plywood panels. Watson then paints the rougher texture and rustic look of raw birch plywood over their surface. All but two of the works in the series are variations on two particular sheets of plywood in Watson's studio, which serve as models; each is repeated, interpreted slightly differently each time, and with different patterns overlain on each interpretation. Watson compares his recycling of the panels to Andrew Wyeth's 15-year fascination with his model, Helga Testorf.
The faux plywood depicted in the painting "Three" is dominated by blue and grayish off-white hexagons in an infinitely repeating pattern, broken up by a splash of candy cane red-and-pink stripes. The panel in "Tomato" (pictured) is painted to look as if it has been treated with a stain applied in a dizzying pattern of circles. At its center is a red dot that looks like a big sticker; the paint is layered near the bottom of its circumference, to make it look as if the sticker is peeling off.
With the exception of "Tomato," the pieces are more conceptually intriguing than they are visually arresting. Still, they work because they are clever — more so than Watson himself admits.
Despite the avowed and convincing representational line the artist takes in describing his work, the pieces straddle abstraction in subversive ways Watson does not himself acknowledge. The plywood subjects are never presented bare, but always overlain with polygons or ragged joints of faux tape and tessellations of geometric patterns lifted from wallpaper designs. They are representations of abstract art objects. Without context, we could easily mistake them for such, thus radically altering our notions of their composition and intent.
"I think it should be that the careful viewer and the person who comes in for free wine see something different," says Watson. "And the careful person sees a bit more."
Watson's intentions for the series, however, are not exhausted by visual experimentation. A resident of Brecksville who has seen several homes in his neighborhood fall into foreclosure, Watson chose construction material as the exhibit's centerpiece in order to reassert its value. Presenting the viewer the same two pieces of plywood again and again accentuates the individuality of even the mass-manufactured objects we consume. Though their parts might be indistinguishable, their history makes them special; there is no object in the world like Grandpa's watch, even though it is one of thousands of identical timepieces. But because it is the object of shared familial memories, it is a treasure. So too, Watson suggests, should we stop and think about the physical material our homes are made of and what it means when those items are manufactured impersonally.
Still, it's a tough sell. Hardware materials are not the most intrinsically lovable or stimulating objects we encounter in our lives, and cultivating an appreciation for them is a demanding task. But if our considerations of plywood are thought of as a first remark in a longer conversation about material culture, it is not a bad starting place.