Odyssey of These Days – New Paintings by Wesley Hurd
This essay comes from the exhibition catalog for Odyssey of These Days, a multimedia exhibition featuring new paintings by ECA co-founder Wesley Hurd, and original music by composer Eliot Grasso. The exhibition takes place at the Hult Center studio, March 3rd and 4th at 7pm. Read more about the exhibition here and buy tickets from the Hult Center box office.
By Vicki Krohn Amorose
The word “teoria” means detached beholding and contemplation; it serves to describe an artist’s attempt to closely examine their inner turmoil, rather than be swept up by colors and rages. Painter Wesley Hurd is a thinking person’s person. He holds a Ph.D. in Education along with advanced degrees in theology and fine art. We can argue as to whether intellectuals truly understand more than the rest of us, but certainly their efforts to understand are rigorous. Conceptual and technical rigors come to the fore in The Odyssey of These Days. With its interplay of agitation and quietude, the work compels sustained engagement.
Directly inspired by an arc of time, The Odyssey of These Days is a series of 9 paintings arranged in an arc formation. Identical in their picture-window size and suspended by steel-frame supports, the work asks the viewer to enter a conjured space, a space of reverie and shifting moods. The referenced time arc spanned 7 months in 2015, during which the artist laid out a task for himself. He prepared 9 canvases of the same size (51”x 47”) with the intention of confronting, in paint, his own private and ominous “dark night of the soul.”
During the creation process, a shooting took place on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, when a student killed his professor and 8 students before turning the gun on himself. Hurd lives in nearby Eugene, and having spent much of his life as a student and teacher, was deeply affected by the news. At the time, Hurd was finishing the 7th painting in the series, the prescient Ghost and Something. He describes how the final 2 paintings were a direct personal response to the violent event: “Document emerged with a collaged piece of paper I saturated with water, gessoed and stained in a manner evoking body fluid. The marks and resulting forms ‘documented’ the facticity of this horrible event and loss of lives.”
When viewers learn of this actual timeframe, it lends an edge of narrative content not usually associated with non-objective painting. We have a map to the work. We enter the progression and cannot help but wonder at the artist’s language. Do the surface dots in Document represent the 9 victims at UCC, do they allude to bullet holes, are they pushpins on the map of gun violence? Do the 9 canvases connect to the 9 dead? Even when we know we should not look for identifiable forms in abstract work, we don’t know how not to.
The artist’s consideration of surface texture unifies the work, with a focus on how under-colors push up from beneath. Neutral hues, predominately white and black with gradients of gray, add to the contemplative aspect. The first 3 paintings, Between the Knife and the Heart, Missing Horizon, and In Time: Threats and Promises, contain scattered, floating elements, as if there is no resting place for the mind. Bursts of gestural marks coalesce and collapse while more deliberate marks and dots punctuate the surface and call attention to the care of placement.
As the series continues, the paintings gain more solidity. Meet Me in the Silence feels transitional in this sense, as the artist omits any trace of color and a tonal fog dampens movement. The color black dominates the canvas in The Ghost of These Days, expressing both burden and relief, like the dark behind closed, exhausted eyes. In the next 2 paintings, the artist introduces borders to his compositions – appearing as strips of paint in Nothingness/Somethingness, and as amorphous shapes in Periphery – suggesting possibilities of holding together, containment, getting a grip. The artist says of the 9th and last painting, Elegy and Gold: “I began with a strong impulse to create a grave maker. But as the process unfolded I began making a more spherical form, like a large ghost-like, otherworldly moon.” The pain consolidates; it has found a temporary place to settle.
These paintings ask what the artist, or any of us, can articulate in the face of overwhelming sadness and profound violence. It happened here. Our own definition of “here” – too close, too shocking – the impact reverberates like an earthquake. Yet unlike a natural disaster, the destruction arises from forces within us, within humanity itself. What did we do or fail to do, what is wrong with our species, what is wrong with us? It happened here, where only abstraction can begin to describe where and how it frightens.
Perhaps we can only articulate our refusal to accept what we know to be unacceptable. To accept is to allow the thing to fade. Using art, words, music, action, ceremony and speech, we can create ways to remember and thereby refute the assertion that a school shooting is commonplace “these days.” Even though the perceiver is removed from the direct impact of the event, we take part in an opposing commonplace reality – the humane, sustained and formidable response of the community who survived. Art can extend the length of memory and the reach of empathy.
Reverie rarely leads to answers; it leads instead to more and deeper questions. Subtle markings in paint evoke a consciousness scratching at the surface of wonder. We struggle to fully stop for just a fraction of time, land on one of those dots on canvas and willfully instruct ourselves to think on one painful subject. We resolve to do this but find no resolution, only the mysterious yin yang experience of human connectedness and separation.
About the writer:
Vicki Krohn Amorose is an artist, writer, and arts advocate. She is an alumna of the University of Michigan and the Academy of Art University San Francisco. Vicki has lectured on topics in contemporary art at University of Oregon, Lane Community College, and Oregon State University and she writes for Professional Artist Magazine. She makes her home in Eugene, Oregon.