Revenge: The Miniature Hate Paintings of Patrick W. Welch

at Gescheidle, through October 5

Ellie Wallace

at Artemisia, through September 28

Patrick W. Welch in his 95 small paintings at Gescheidle denies the transcendence aimed for by artists from Giotto to Rothko, in which colors seem disconnected from the material world and objects float mysteriously in space. Instead Welch’s colors and shapes are strangely static, his objects fixed or frozen in both form and meaning–an effect enhanced by the frequent inclusion of limiting texts. This approach does have a purpose, however: he wants to depict and express hatred. And because most art creates a deep connection with the viewer, he must undercut the appeal of his subjects.

Brightly colored and somewhat obsessive, Welch’s pictures are influenced by pop art and–in part for its narrative possibilities, in part because he was “inspired by romantic notions of what being insane is”–outsider art. He also cites as influences Edward Gorey and Indian miniatures–whose jewellike colors he transmutes to produce intense clashes. Most of the paintings here are postcard size, grouped into one of two series displayed in grids. Among the 21 in “United in Their Hatred of Patrick W. Welch” is 237 Guns (the pieces are titled, but Welch left some titles out of the gallery’s documentation), which graphically illustrates being stuck in the trap of objects. A kind of pointillism creates a firearm: different size silhouettes of automatic weapons together form a single large gun, in a literal depiction of the way a fixation can grow into a prison. Somewhat modifying this fixation are the compelling, sensuous colors of the background, which form a swirling blue-and-brown pattern.

The words written on Welch’s paintings are generally prosaic or negative: he simply labels his subjects or fills an entire painting with an angry or self-hating slogan, locking the viewer into specific meanings. In Defial two men in space suits piss on a grave; the text identifies them as David Salle and Ed Ruscha and the grave as Welch’s. Such undigested bitterness in regard to the art world is a bit too apparent in this and a few other pictures. But it’s also clear that this 37-year-old British native, now living in Chicago and having his first solo show in a commercial gallery, respects Ruscha: the backgrounds for many other slogan paintings recall his sunsets and landscapes. Universally Hated Etc. is filled with a neon sign spelling out these words against a romantic landscape of strange mounds silhouetted against a twilit starry sky. In the context of the series, the slogan suggests self-hate rather than hatred of others, and Welch says that hatred is “a conceit that allows me to reflect on my own feelings of inadequacy.”

P-Head #250 is one of 60 three-by-four-inch acrylics on paper included here from the series “P-Heads,” displayed in an almost mind-boggling six-by-ten grid of nasty images and words. This one consists of the slogan “We blame my dad for everything” set against an abstract purplish skyscape reminiscent of Ruscha. Presented as if on a billboard, the words lack the epistemological dimension of Ruscha’s texts. But just as Welch uses sensual colors to offset his hard-edged messages, he adds paradoxical visual elements to unfix meaning a bit: only the letters of the bottom word here cast long shadows.

The P-Heads originated, Welch says, in the “multieyed monsters that had terrorized me as a child,” visions he speculates were inspired by the grotesque extra eyes on a Mr. Potato Head. Earlier works in the series (not in the show) include these creatures, and abstracted versions of them can be found in P-Head #222, P-Head #224, and P-Head #226, in all of which an ominous, breastlike pink cloud hovers over a pleasant rural landscape. In 226 the pink shape bulges and droops over a field and house (which Welch identifies as his parents’ home). Other rural scenes seem threatened by something with less personal significance; several show power pylons snaking across landscapes. The most bizarre of these is P-Head #205, in which red electrical towers unaccountably lead up into desolate, ice-covered mountains. Here, and in a view of the red supporting arm of a pylon in P-Head #209, Welch uses harsh color contrasts to suggest industrial intrusions into nature.

Welch says he was also influenced by alternative comics, which he first discovered in editions of the anthology Raw, published in New York in the 1980s; he was especially impressed by the nightmarish stories of Mark Beyer, whose awkward figures and spaces reminded him of outsider art. Welch’s grids surely recall comics, but they don’t tell linear stories. And their many incongruities–the generic rural landscapes, sunsets, and picture-perfect starry skies colliding with strange shapes or texts–underline the central paradox of his work: the split between traditional ideals of beauty and harmony and the discordance around and within us. The witty disparities Welch interjects and his sensual use of color can’t efface the awful fixity of his objects and words, stark reminders of the traps our culture sets for us–and that we set for ourselves.

Ellie Wallace began making paintings of “commonplace objects on a field of color,” she writes in a statement, “in honor of my grandmother’s kitchen junk drawer.” A Chicagoan who grew up in the suburbs, now 39, Wallace has in the past personalized and spiritualized her subjects. Her chosen method, creating layer upon layer of oil paint and beeswax on wood, creates the sense that the object is floating in three dimensions rather than sitting flat. Of the eight paintings at Artemisia, a few represent a considerable advance, profoundly undercutting her subjects’ materiality. The small Rubber Band, with its carefully painted trompe l’oeil shadows, recalls her earlier work: the object is central, the background less prominent. The large Spell, showing a piece of paper creased from folding against a larger background area, is more ambiguous. The way the paper seems to float in an indeterminate space recalls the work of abstract painters such as Rothko and Reinhardt. Moreover, each panel of the paper has a strange bud on it, which Wallace says represents a little drop of water–but why drops of water? In the antithesis of the way Welch works, using overspecificity and solidity to pin down horror, Wallace employs ambiguity to dematerialize her subjects.

Two of the paintings lack central objects entirely. In Systematic, thin red lines form a grid over a background of clouds, the painted threads apparently held in place by painted staples. Wallace says that she made the lines by cutting into the wax with a razor blade, then applying the red, and that they were inspired by the red line on an index card. In Cross, the finest piece here, two red lines form a cross, with one painted staple attached to each thread. But the staples are imperfectly inserted, defeating their purpose, which is to pin down. The thin, almost ethereal lines don’t seem susceptible to stapling anyway.

Given the trompe l’oeil staples I began to wonder if the wood grain was also painted on, but Wallace says it’s the plywood support showing through a layer of wax and clear polyurethane. This mix of actual and painted objects further undercuts perceptual stability, creating an effect diametrically opposed to Welch’s: Wallace dematerializes the image and thereby frees the viewer from familiar perceptions and conceits.