“Do you understand what I mean by that?” Hans Wendt asks several times during our interview. He is not condescending but only wants to ensure utmost clarity. We’re speaking through Skype. He tells me the sun is setting over his pastoral home.
Wendt is a painter of watercolour tableaus — large representations of the deceptively simple studio subjects of paper, oil crayons, and lumps of clay. They’re framed up immaculately and without glass so viewers can properly take in the richness of colour upon creamy ground, surprisingly corporeal given the modesty of his material.
When he speaks of his process, he orbits around particular ideas of refinery, narrowing down both approach and subject matter until he reaches a razor’s edge. Where oil painting functions through an additive layering of opacities (and oil painters can find moments of startling beauty in accidental builds or wipes), watercolour demands prescience. Translucencies are glassed until colour soaks the field. A fuck-up begets a do-over. You can’t hide anything behind a window.
“I’m looking around for blank things to paint,” he says. He’ll photograph small objects in high resolution and use the image on-screen as an augmentation for his eye. Detail he’d fudge in memory is calcified in pixels’ rigidity. These images gift him with enough foreknowledge to begin his painting. But in spite of (because of) these parameters — captured light and shadow — there is a transmutation between image and painting.
Shadow, especially, takes on its own presence. In Wendt’s Colour Squares series, it reaches maximum liquidity, intense enough to become subject, ghosting around a rigid frame. Shadows break Wendt’s geometries. They both ground a painting in the reality from which it has sprung and siphon it into an abstract weirdness. This is most clearly understood in his Pastel series, where blue or white oil crayons leak a limpid darkness. Beneath the surface of the everyday — Wendt’s pastels have been clinking around in a mason jar together for years — ripples an unmistakable historical muscle. Look at a Pastel painting, then try to remember it. The blue-black rectangles look unmistakably Rothko.
The magic of a Wendt painting is that, like viewing a hologram from first one angle and then another, history can flash up but it can be obscured again. Move your head just a little and you’ll lose it. Wendt’s own relationship to art history is a contentious one. Dr. Catherine Soussloff, who gave a talk on the occasion of Wendt’s solo exhibition at The Apartment, links Wendt’s work not to any contemporary movements but to post-impressionism, with its expressive commitment to life through distortions of form and colour.
Wendt, Soussloff says, is an artist who fulfills the myth of the painter as a magician: “the person who can show you the world, but better — more acutely.”
What does it mean, this betterment, this acuteness? Certainly the painter’s lot isn’t that of resolution. The digital image, captured in ideal light and writ large in megapixels by a good device, is sharper and more perfect than any human can make it. Its detail isn’t imperiled by hand or memory. But a good painter can “navigate the ineffable,” as Sheila Heti has put it. He can make the editorial calls for highlight or omission, relief or distortion. He can come to represent the nature of a thing without being beholden to the veracity of its ocular appearance.
Wendt’s work so carefully balances the personal and the manufactured that these two modes of object relation cancel each other out. The ensuing blankness makes room for a Benjaminian aura: an enduring resonance that relies not on ideological implications but on the social autonomy of an original artwork. Its most important quality is its irreproducibility. Counterintuitive, given that the locus of Wendt’s work is in photography; photography being, of course, the crystallization and then reproduction of an object in time.
Each spring, Wendt closes up his studio and goes to work on his farm. “My head is in the soil,” he says. “I don’t paint for five months.” In an interview with the CBC, he jokes that it was his heirloom tomatoes that secured his spot in Oh Canada, the first definitive exhibition of contemporary Canadian art put on abroad. He means to be modest: Of the sixty featured artists, he was the only one selected to represent the province of Prince Edward Island.
Some credit must be granted to a region that, in spite of its geographic diminutiveness, not only wrested distinction from the larger spectacular wastes of Canada but also provided impetus for the whole nation’s creation. Its bucolic landscape of rolling green is the one that coloured that girlhood tome, Anne of Green Gables. Its coastline is a perpetually oxidizing sandstone red. Some passionate anonyme included in PEI’s Wiki article the phrase: “The island’s lush landscape has a strong bearing on its economy and culture.” Not a single landscape occurs in Wendt’s work, though sometimes items collected from it appear. One body of work features vegetables so oddly formed they seem anthropomorphic; another, a suite of clay hunks that Wendt off-handedly calls his “blob paintings.”
Painting the clay forms was a “miraculous” occurrence that first delivered Wendt out of abstraction and into his current method. Arranged tightly on the page, the forms in Blob Tableau (2007) are so luminous they seem light-boxed. A warm illumination is directed at them from one side and a cool one from the other, giving them the appearance of both heirloom and artifact.
When it comes to time, Wendt is again the magician. Photography, with its reliance on snatches of time as a parameter of its making, can represent moments and duration but never eternity.
The blobs’ wetness is eternal. Contrasted against the quickness with which one must work with watercolour — a most unruly medium that aches for clots and stoppages — their lonely, mouth-wet glisten betrays neither nascence or decay.
Whether or not time ever stops in the studio is up for debate. The consensus is, though, that time passes differently in there. It drags, or runs away. Sometimes one could swear it disappears altogether. A leitmotif in Wendt’s paintings, his studio is both subject and ground. He follows in a long tradition of artists who have taken the studio not just as a place of behind-the-scenes production but as a place worthy, in its unique liminal link to artistic activity, of representation. The attractive qualities of its vacuum are not just impetus for work but become the work entirely. On this level, Wendt is painting the source.