For the last twenty years Steve Wolfe has created objects and drawings of astounding craft and visual presence that explore the intersections between material culture, intellectual history, and personal and collective memory. Steve Wolfe on Paper, a collaboration between the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Menil Collection
, focuses on works on paper, some purely drawn but most combining aspects of drawing, painting, collage, and printmaking. The exhibition is co-organized by Franklin Sirmans, the Menils former curator of modern and contemporary art (now head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Carter E. Foster, the Whitneys curator of drawings.
The title, Steve Wolfe on Paper, selected by Wolfe himself, refers to the artists technique and subject (Wolfes work often depicts paper in the form of books) and to his commitment to the material and the handmade (particularly potent today, given the endangered state of the printed word).
Wolfes art represents objects of cultural mass dissemination books and records. Rather than the ordinary depiction of books on canvas or another two-dimensional framing device, Wolfes painted objects employ the tradition of trompe loeil, the trick of the eye. The difference here between re-presentation and representation is that trompe loeil seeks to depict the subject as it really looks in two or three dimensions, said Franklin Sirmans. This is seen not only as a demonstration of craft and skill but, more importantly, as a tribute to the object and its multivalent meanings.
In the 36 works on view, tattered books and worn album covers are meticulously recreated to convey the mark of time and handling. They often fool the eye upon first inspection. The creases, tears and basic wear point to human contact and become metaphors of enlightenment and culture. What appear to be tattered books, worn covers, and old vinyl records (viewers recognize and delight in Wolfes subjects such as Candide, The Lovin Spoonfuls Do You Believe in Magic, Gore Vidals The City and the Pillar, Joni Mitchells Help Me and Waiting for Godot) are in fact objects made from modeling paste, screen printing, graphite, and various other techniques, meticulously produced to convey the mark of time and handling. The artists transformation of common objects requires the viewer to re-think what they mean as such, placing emphasis on craft and the handmade to transform the common into the uncanny and the sublime.
Indebted to Pop Art, Wolfes optical strategy manifests an updated approach to craft. But while the patina of time is crucial to Wolfes art, perhaps what is most interesting about the collection is its sense of autobiography. Book covers have been the primary subject of Wolfes art and his renderings of particular covers relating to moments in his life may be seen as self-portraits of the artist and of his generation. Born in Pisa, Italy, in 1955, Wolfe lives and works in San Francisco, California. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, he was a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award.