The current mixed media exhibit of artist Thomas Wharton, an adjunct professor at Midland University and Metropolitan Community College, provides a perplexing puzzle but rewards with craft, concept and discovery.
Wharton’s exhibit at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery in the Old Market, “Windows and Key” which ends November 27, features more than two dozen photographs paintings and sculptures, exploring concepts of light, transformation and perception.
The artist has taken a simple and rather mundane thing – a dimmer switch – out of its comfort zone and transformed it into an icon, a symbol, an essential tool. Transformed into a graceful, sleek, sculptured “spindle,” this new, fertile muse becomes a guide, a “Key,” to the translation and dissection of each enigmatic piece, the “Window”. This modern take on the ivory plastic knob to which we are all accustomed, becomes elemental to every work in the show.
The most notable pieces, if only because of size, are eight, roughly five by four-foot, framed, color photos that are initially puzzling, almost indecipherable. The subject of the photos is not obvious, nor is the vantage point. Aside from a few recognizable nuances, they simply look like an interesting arrangement of blue, white and grey rectangles, bisected at times by a sharp angle or line, and randomly sprinkled with recognizable shapes or things.
The very symmetrical, minimalist arrangements of rectangles, in fact, begin to reveal secrets that lead to partial solution: hints of perspective and vantage point; a shadow reminds you of a tree branch, or a roofline; a reflection takes shape as a cloud; this looks like snow; a black mark becomes a paw print. And, in deference to the muse, a central shadow becomes a distortion of the spindle.
In these, Wharton has taken shadows and shapes, patterns formed by rectangles, punctuated by circles, and continued them out to the frames, incorporating the frame into the piece. Through use of stains, paints, and inlaid wood, the frame is married permanently to the image; nuanced tapers mirror similar shapes withing the image.
Many artists tend to try this at some point in their careers, only come up short with a cloying interruption in an otherwise enjoyable image. Whartons understanding of subtlety, line and composition, along with his skills as a wood smith, let the frames become part of the image.
Moving on, and keeping with the rectangle theme, you will find six smaller photographic works – black and white, photo-collages mounted to panels – which are inset into a canvas or linen “frame,” and onto which Wharton has carried the patterns of shadow and light by means of soft charcoal renderings of shadow and light elements. The collage is simply one photo set into another, and the whole could have easily become chaotic had it been more complex.
The central photo, collaged or not, is by itself a strong minimalist image, but the surrounding drawing joins it back the themes of the show. This style of repetition framing, reduction and expansion of the light/shadow elements within the original scene, is right at home here, and rendered without pretense.
Interspersed through the front room are three “pairings,” each consisting of a pedestal sculpture and a wall piece – a minimalist photo inset into a painted background. Each pair creates an elegant maquette, a simple mirrored curio stand displaying a spindle, and an atmospheric photo of the same spindle. The artist chose to list each work in the pair as separate pieces, but they work so well together, one would be remiss in separating them.
Continuing with the sculptural, the back room contains three, model-like constructions or maquettes. Each is set upon a table-like pedestal; one, “Black Pond,” helps greatly in deciphering the large photos mentioned earlier. The other two, “Shadow Table” and “Spire Light,” are electrified luminaires controlled by their own spindle, which then becomes the focal point of each piece.
With the artist’s stated philosophy and objective, it might have been exciting to see more of the electrified sculptures. This is one of the most complete and cohesive exhibits you may see in a while.
If you need dropped names for further reading, see Gyorgy Kepes, Roger Ballen, Zeke Berman. Wharton’s work is admittedly more minimal, but it is also meticulously constructed. Wharton delves into other mediums without apprehension. His result is affecting in its thorough dissection and derivation of an idea, combined with adept craftmanship.
Three small, photorealist oil paintings provide a needed contrast by examining alternate perspectives and asymmetrical views. These might have been stronger had the three been larger, but the contrast is needed to break up the symmetry and repetition of shape prevalent in the rest of the show.
Though very different, the first piece in the show, may be one of the best. It is a wall-hung shelf featuring three spindles upon a transparent, plexiglass shelf. The overhead track lighting not only lights the piece, but shows through the plexiglass shelf, creating interesting shadows below. Of course, if someone were to purchase this, the resulting shadows would change, but that may be partly the essence of the message.
Thoreau said “It’s not what you look at. It’s what you see.” Wharton’s work is challenging at first, but the reward is a short course in seeing. It is photography about photography, art about art, and it is a solid examination of an idea.
“Windows and Keys,” is a cohesive presentation from this Omaha based artist and teacher, showcasing his interests and skills in woodworking, painting, photography and sculpture. If you are lucky, you may even catch the artist on a folding chair in the corner of the gallery, providing some pleasing ambiance from his Spanish guitar.
“Windows and Keys” shows through November 27th. The Garden of the Zodiac can be found inside the Old Market Passageway. They are on Facebook, and can be reached at 402-341-1877, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.