Strange Shapes, Dissident Colors: Nan Wilson’s It’s About Time

Currently on display in the Sioux City Art Center, following a three-story trek up a winding staircase, is the immediately startling, virtually indigestible art exhibition of Nan Wilson, a local artist who is presently a professor at Briar Cliff University. The massive paintings were created in the last 25 years, and the last exhibition she had at the Sioux City Art Center was over 30 years ago. With this in mind, it’s as if a creative viral outbreak was unleashed upon the gallery room, with strands of multicolored tentacles snaking across the walls, even dripping from the ceilings.

The paintings all consist of oil on canvas, in some cases oil and acrylic, and in a few of the works there are also attachments to the pieces. The paintings are massive, often 6 feet by 6 feet, in some cases 8 feet by 12 feet. It is hard not to be startled by their shear size. One peers into images larger than themselves. The images sometimes resemble a psychedelic rainbow vortex. One piece, titled “Absolution,” looks like a view in the eyepiece of a microscope. The viewer stares into a world of magnified globular cells and veins. The colors pulsate with an energy that reminds us our cells are in constant state of movement.

One recurring theme in at least 5 of the 11 works is the idea of being veiled or caged, or somehow restricted or enclosed. The theme is represented quite explicitly in the painting “Veiled Perfection.” In the painting, we see a patterned assortment of different colored squares. In front of the squares, attached to the painting, is a copper wire fence, patterned in squares similar to the squares in the painting. Another painting, titled “Captured,” shows tan-colored object similar to a piece from Stonehenge, blended together with an unidentified, plum-colored sphere. Both objects are wrapped in what appears to be metal wire. Yet another painting, titled “Primary Impulses,” depicts a pile of different colored circles. It looks like a pile of stones. Again, the entire pile is wrapped in wire, as if the pile were caged. What does it all mean?

I have my own theory. In the gallery, it says that the title of Nan Wilson’s exhibition refers to the fact that she hasn’t had her work on display in so long, that “it’s about time” she did so. However, I choose to view the gallery as if the paintings themselves were actually representations or meditations about the nature of time. For example, some forms of time, such as the past or what we call memories, are in fact captured and caged in our minds. These forms of time seem to be stagnant, changing only when we ourselves change and then revisit them with a different perspective. The recurrence of the barbed wire could be a metaphor for the way we encapsulate our memories, with the possible suggestion that we ought to revisit our memories, thus freeing them from their enclosure. In other paintings, a more free-flowing display of images spread across the canvas, perhaps suggesting the nature of present time, the way it moves with a tangible force, the way it expands and grows. For example, the piece “Interrupted Symmetry” features the blending of squares and triangles, creating the effect of optical irreducibility upon the objects of the painting. It is at once possible to isolate different shapes within the painting, but it is impossible to reduce the painting to it’s individual parts, and the painting thus has shape but no shape, no beginning and no end. This is suggestive of our experience with present time, the way it has already passed the second we are conscience of its passing, the way it dies and re-creates itself instantaneously, the way it has no true beginning and no true end.

Nan Wilson’s exhibition is a thought-provoking display of strangely colored images that escape easy interpretation. The reaction to her works are perhaps first experience viscerally. The eye is met with a combination of colors and images it is not accustomed to. However, once the sensory data has been half-digested, the mind takes over and creates the meaning that may or may not be inherent within the work. Regardless of the artist’s intent and anyone’s interpretation, Nan Wilson’s gallery offers us an excellent opportunity to exercise our minds, employ our critical thinking skills, and stretch our imaginations.

Comments are closed.