A Confusing Calamity

photo by Stephen Urchick

photo by Stephen Urchick

Thomas Wolfe mixes more than media. His collages conflate preying birds and preening beauties, substitute blossoms for bullet-broken plywood, and suggest something strangely glandular in irises and bull’s-eyes. Installed at the Chicago Art Department for one night last week, Wolfe’s fifteen-canvas series “Calamity” weaves incompletely human subjects between stark, attention-abusing lettering that rushes up and off from backgrounds of unrelated but loosely thematic and cleverly repurposed textbook pages. The canvasses speak to recognizable, well-traveled tensions–pinup and power-player, potency and the illusion thereof. Wolfe’s pasting produces stark, sharply rendered lines; colors command against the bleached pages. Each collage loudly suggests a self-evident statement, literally spelling out the topic, the titles unambiguously stenciled onto the canvas.

Yet Wolfe’s nagging absurdity and incipient surrealism deliberately garble this message, shouldering the observer with a tangle of possible takeaways and parachuting him into strange lands. You don’t know the language, but the canvasses confront you with a native speaker’s impatient matter-of-factness. You start parsing the dialogue in broad, hazy strokes. He’s worried–but about what? He’s fearful–but of whom? The block letters blur.

photo by Stephen Urchick

photo by Stephen Urchick

In “Daydream,” a hawk-woman seductively disrobes against the bright orange shadow of a male sharpshooting target, flanked by a metal picket sign and a lounging owl-fatale. The work proposes big, confrontational topics. The title and a shamelessly indulgent sexuality open up wish gratification. Large avian eyes, twirled sunglasses–the transitive dishabille–push you to a voyeuristic reading. But when it comes to specifics, you’re left to wonder where Wolfe falls. Does the male loom ever-presently, his broad shoulders bolstering the thin, feminine frames, supplying their ground floor and field of action? Or is he defeated by the compression the hawk applies to his chest, the asphyxiating vice implied by the powerful legs draped over his neck? Wolfe’s voice abruptly cuts out. Your critical aim goes as wide as the bullet holes in the background; you spray and pray, hoping to hit on something sensible.

This silence speaks to uncertainties and anxieties not unlike those Wolfe has just recently overcome: the starving artist’s classic (yet very real) exigencies, divorce and separation, a looming midlife crisis. Chance and fate left him with larger, but similarly unresolved problems. “Calamity” is a response to a rough period in his life, where his path forward was as split as his prints’, his reality just as disrupted and discontinuous. “I’m doing this for myself,” he says. “Things just come to the surface.”

His calamitous iconography is inspired by ancient Japanese referents. Like centuries of medieval males before him, Wolfe has experienced his own honyaku, or “great calamity.” He associates himself with the traditional idea of a middle-aged yakudoshi, or “year of misfortune,” and thus with a pan-generational self-doubt. Today’s midlife crises, in other words, are nothing new.

“Atoyaku” and “Bang” bring this upheaval most strongly to the fore. They feature the only two prominent male figures in the exhibit, both free-falling tentatively, both evoking a groundlessness that stands against the leggy firmness of Wolfe’s women. Wolfe evacuates the top half of “Atoyaku,” drawing the beholder’s gaze down the tall and narrow canvas, along taut winch-lines, to where a tie-wearing bear hangs suspended from a harness over the bottom edge. But mutually exclusive images go to war: the super-spy man in black executing a dangerous Australian abseil, an unfortunate catch tangled in a counterbalanced snare.

photo by Stephen Urchick

photo by Stephen Urchick

Meanwhile, “Bang’s” Bondish protagonist–pistols akimbo–heroically dives to the floor. He aims, however, at unseen, illusive foes. Blossoms perforate the canvass like squashed .45 rounds, bull’s-eyes situate him in what looks like a shooting gallery, and Wolfe’s jutting letters put him on the defensive. The man rests his head against the “B,” employs the “A” as cover against invisible gunmen, and shifts the weight of his legs onto the “N” and “G.” Is he making a courageous last stand, or is he bleeding out into black-blooded ignominy?

These and other ambiguities lie at the heart of “Calamity.” Wolfe communicates his bewilderment, alienation, and wondering by provoking miniaturized conflicts in his viewers. He opts for animal heads over completely human forms to introduce a further, vital “Why?”. Wolfe populates his backgrounds with pages from astronomy and navigation texts to evoke the stormy seas he himself has had to sail. The conceit cleverly announces and prioritizes exploration, asking us to chart the exhibition’s equally disturbed waters.

“Calamity” cages an age-old identity conflict in the expressions of contemporary art. The collages propose broad and blunt initial questions, but Wolfe’s strange and unfamiliar articulations prevent any clear answers. By linking his collages to Japanese tradition, Wolfe makes a convincing argument that men share the same fundamental struggles. His art demonstrates the unique strains and worries these common causes evoke, pasting together downscaled but not unrelated uncertainties for us to uneasily resolve.