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Originally published Friday, April 26, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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Words and images conjure new meanings in Joe Wardwell’s paintings

A review of an exhibition of paintings by Joe Wardwell, a UW alum who is now professor of painting and drawing at Brandeis University.

Special to The Seattle Times

EXHIBITION REVIEW

‘As We Go Up We Go Down: Paintings by Joe Wardwell’

1-7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays, through May 25, Prole Drift, 523 S. Main St., Seattle (206-399-5506 or proledrift.com).

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Who would have thought there was still something new to be made of the combination of words and images? It is one of the oldest tricks of the communications trade. It is precisely how this review, and everything else in this newspaper for that matter, conveys meaning; and it has been a basic part of modern art since at least Picasso’s cubist collages. But at Prole Drift just now, local-boy-gone-east Joe Wardwell (UW class of ’96) offers a show of word and image paintings that are as provocative as they are beautiful.

Wardwell superimposes words on landscape imagery. This is a simple enough device, but the meanings he wrests from it are profound.

Though the landscapes might suggest the Pacific Northwest or other parts of the country, they are not specific. Wardwell is less concerned with describing any particular place than he is intrigued by what landscape painting suggests about our relationship with the natural world: In his comprehension, the entire history of American landscape art has been informed by a sense of unease about our destructive urbanization of the continent.

The words that are painted over the landscapes are something else again. They are often fragments of rock song lyrics, and they tend toward the deadpan. Occasionally there seems to be a straightforward connection between image and words. “Go Ahead and Jump” is painted over a view of a waterfall splashing down a deep gorge, for example. Elsewhere there is rather less to go on, even though it is difficult to avoid trying to make a connection. The words “On And On And On And On” might have something to do with the never-ending cascade of water that they are painted over. But finally, the less direct link there is between words and image, as in “Well Intentioned But Bad Advice,” the more intriguing the finished painting is.

No less intriguing is the way these words are superimposed on the landscapes. In the best work here, Wardwell uses a sophisticated stenciling technique. He paints the landscape, masks off the areas that he wants to keep visible, and then he overpaints the entire canvas. Another artist might have been content with this overpainting as a sort of extreme abstraction, but once the paint is dry Wardwell peels off the areas that he had masked over to reveal the letter-shaped areas of landscape that spell out his chosen phrase.

In fact, in these enormously sophisticated pictures, Joe Wardwell presents three quite different things at the same time: landscape painting, rock lyrics and brushy abstraction. The extent to which these three elements interconnect in any one painting varies, but to Wardwell they have this in common — they are all important components of the contemporary American artistic identity. For each of us, their relative significance will be different, but the fact that Wardwell permits us to conjure with their various and parallel meanings all at the same time is the basis of his art’s palpable success.

Robert Ayers: robertayers@mac.com

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