Blue in the eye (courtesy of the artist)
Artists make us see things we wouldn’t otherwise notice, including phenomena we normally ignore. In his exhibition “Smalls”, Mark Westervelt gives us 400 examples of how the ordinary, the junk, even the disgusting, can be transformed into magical and aesthetic delights.
The title of the exhibition refers to the scale of Westervelt’s works – his pieces measure 5 by 7″, 10 by 10″ and 9 by 12″ each. They may be small, but they are mighty. On some, the surfaces are completely covered with various marks. On others, a figure or portrait resides on an elegantly sanded and varnished block of wood. Westervelt combines painting, drawing, collage and assemblage, primarily using dried paint chips, paint skins, debris and glue to create a myriad of images ranging from the grotesque to the bizarrely beautiful, with emotions that can be anguished or ethereal or slapstick.
The beautifully set up exhibit is hung in what looks like a series, although the works were not created in any specific order. The majority were made within the last five years, but there are a few earlier smaller works on paper dating back over 10 years.
A wall of 16 expressionist male portraits (wall 7), on a mottled white background with heads outlined in black and hung in a grid, could be the basis of an entire show. The faces, impenetrable and intense, give off a palpable inner strength. They are in league with former masters of the gesture like Chaïm Soutine or Giacometti.
Another group consists of 23 artfully composed, athletically inclined men who reflect Westervelt’s early days in illustration and design. Works such as “Head in the Sand” and “Goggles and Gull” are examples of this, and quite funny.
Other realistic images include a pillar hung with stunningly simple yet beautiful octopus “portraits”.
Westervelt’s knowledge of art history is vast, and his groupings of 25 figures and portraits of mostly women are pale, delicate, and resonate with rococo. The hairstyles alone, as depicted in “Madame Bouffant”, would make Antoine Watteau salivate.
There are patterns that Westervelt repeats throughout the show. Janus figures appear in his earliest plays, such as ‘Janus Kiss’, as well as in current works. Half-figurative, half-animal beings – often reminiscent of shamanic imagery – also make regular appearances in powerful works such as “Stag”. “Skip to My Lou” exemplifies his use of provocative but not entirely human characters.
Westervelt, a Kansas City native, earned his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1990 (he also co-founded the Left Bank Gallery in the Bottoms while a student), then earned his MFA from the University of Chicago, where he studied with the famous artist Vera Clement. He began his career making large abstract paintings. But he noticed, when working on canvas, that a lot of paint fell to the floor and dried. He writes: “Through this process, I realized the random beauty that lives in the surfaces of dried paint and decided that it was still very useful. I first started reapplying the dry paint chips to my canvases, but then discovered the possibilities of reducing the size of the current artwork to 5×7 inches on paper. I use the paint chip in its natural form and manipulate it into the desired shape. I also make acrylic paint skins and then manipulate them into final abstract figures on paper and wood panels. By approaching my work as I do, I am able to respond to a desire for collage, assemblage and sculpture without straying from my original discipline, painting.
“What I love about this way of working,” he said in a recent interview, “is that nothing is formalized in my head. It’s up to me to find the image. And then I ask myself: Did I have a moment when I felt like that?
Although Westervelt’s methods may seem haphazard, he says, “If I didn’t know how to paint and draw well enough to do photorealism, my abstract work wouldn’t work.
“People ask me, ‘What are you trying to do?’ Nothing, I say. It’s all self-investigation. It’s the closest thing to the truth of anything I’ve ever done. I surrendered to my process and my medium. I surrendered.
“’Smalls’ by Mark Westervelt” continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through February 27. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, 816.474.1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com