Stephen West Wilson has a quirky way with wood. In the current show at the Storefront Gallery, entitled “Seeing Eyes,” salvaged chunks, some scavenged from the driveway of his Kingston house, are sanded, polished, and colored with pencils or watercolor, an interference that never loses sight of the intrinsic form. Many are displayed on small tabletops, emphasizing their informal, intimate relationship with the viewer. Some pieces, displayed on a mirror, suggest a faceted gem stone, basking in its reflected glory; others a torso or hanging side of beef, as in the case of Hoof of Root—a title that highlights Wilson’s predilection for puns and poetic conflating of disparate associations (the artist taught high school English for many years and formerly was head of the writing center at the Culinary Institute of America). In Hoof of Root, the smooth, colored form is suspended from a panel in front of a mirror, which reveals a cryptic, map-like design on the underside of the wood. Looking becomes a kind of sleuthing, and the mirrored image literally brings the face of the viewer into the piece, so that one is represented and contained within Wilson’ imaginary world. Wilson has other ways of engaging the viewer. For example, one wood sculpture is placed in a felted box with a lid, to be removed by the viewer, breaking the usual “don’t touch” protocol. The container also heightens the mysterious nature of the sculpture, as if it were a precious jewel hidden away.
A curvaceous piece of polished soapstone is actually meant to be handled. The cool feel of the smooth stone, which Wilson said is best experienced with eyes closed, decouples sight perception from art object, a strangely disconcerting experience; the exercise was also childishly playful. Such devices and strategies suggest that context is all: they imbue the object with associations that upend the formal purism of modernism, though they are never literal. A small, polished crotch of wood with knotted protrusions placed on a base next to a vertical metal rod suggests a dead tree next to a pole; another, similar crotch of wood, turned upside down and skewered by an identical rod, as if it were a piece of meat, suggests a tortured male torso charged with eroticism. In another work, a polished stick fitted into a groove of a brick-like piece of smooth, beautifully patterned marble, softened with the carving of a liplike fold at one end, is an unlikely pairing. The erotic associations are trumped by the sheer playfulness of conceit, in which removing and repositioning the stick transforms the sculpture into a cryptic toy. The stick-and-stone piece also prodded the viewer’s imagination, suggesting a bird in flight. Wilson walks the border zone between Surrealism and abstraction, and it’s this careful balancing act that gives his work its edge.