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Onanism is the act of self-gratification practiced by millions of people everyday. So if an artist chooses to bring his fetish to the venue of fine art, wouldn’t you expect to see art that reflects the true quality of that fetish? Joe Wardwell’s solo exhibit Full Length at the Allston Skirt Gallery is an attempt at such masturbatory grandeur.

This exhibit consists of four different components. Wardwell’s debut LP album Full Length, a lo-fi production completely self-composed and recorded. An installation of 40-plus sepia drawings representing preliminary studies for his paintings, pushpinned to the main gallery wall and bookmarked by a home stereo system continually playing his LP album. An assortment of paintings varied in size depicting the final resting place of rock stars doing their thing in heaven. Finally there is what the gallery calls a zine, an artistic manifesto. It is a seven page explanation of the artist’s influences, dreams, lusts. One odd characteristic of this manifesto is that it is written entirely in capital letters, its funny how a few years of text messaging and now the use of capital letters boils down to yelling at you.

If you look at this exhibition from a conceptual point of view, rather than its aesthetics, you’ll find that Wardwell spent some time contemplating his choices. He’s certainly intellectual enough for the stage of Fine Art. The stumbling block for me is Wardwell’s subject matter. What type of audience is interested in the kitsch of rock and roll stars? Is the reality of a rock stars life tasteless enough? Don’t they deserve to be left alone? Maybe the reason why Wardwell is generating interest is because the viewers are living vicariously through the art or the artist, who’s doing the same thing with the rock star; which is the creepy side of this fetish. The bottom line is moving commodities, whether conceptual or monetary, Joe Wardwell has contemplated every possible idea. One man’s fetish is another man’s commodity fetishism.

I made 2 passes through the front end of the gallery and finally concluded that Wardwell was trying to make self-conscious studies of rock stars in a post-baroque style of art. Some of the studies in the installation portion of this exhibit were so sophomorically rendered that I realized that there must be some underlining inside joke to the work, honestly it eluded me. You have to deal with the fact that the artist is trying to represent himself as a bit naive. Wardwell states, in his zine, rather absolutely that “NOW WITH A MASTER OF FINE ART”…, so you know he was been subjected to some form of academia and perhaps that is why he is exhibiting. I would almost prefer that he didn’t know how to draw, then at least the work could maintain its cheap appeal.

The obvious reference for Wardwell’s drawings is that they have a similar sense of execution to the work of Elizabeth Peyton. There is nothing wrong with emulating someone else’s work, the contemporary art industry is one of pilfering by nature. But in this context imitation isn’t the highest form of flattery. They may even be born from similar ideas but end up in very different places. Both painters share a similar impression of celebrity-ism, the only difference is that Peyton’s clumsiness transcends most of the trappings of being a celebrity and starts to suggest the idea of androgyny. Whereas Wardwell’s work contains a sense of the perfunctory, mechanical if you like. Peyton seems to be more interested in exploring the commonalities of her subjects, and Wardwell’s fixation comes off as self-absorbed.

With his integration of the concept of Rococo art, Wardwell buys a little bit of street credibility, adding a level of seriousness to art work that could easily be written off as decorative. In his larger square paintings the repetitiveness of his structural composition, one large circle touching all four edges of the canvas to define the pictorial foreground, is anything but visually tense. It is really difficult to create a strong painting on a weak foundation. This composition appear oddly familiar, after a few moments of contemplation it dawned on me, it’s source was the wear marks that are created on an album cover by the record placed inside for protection and then stacked together.

To understand the true nature of rock and roll, you need to keep in mind that most great rock songs are 3 chord progressions and nothing more, pure and simple. The punk rock movement was born out of frustration with the 70’s corporate music industry, by disenfranchised youth with no musical talent. This exhibition keeps in step with that philosophy of punk rock.

Allston Skirt Gallery

"Joseph Wardell: Full Length" is on viewUntill September 30th at Allston Skirt Gallery, located at 450 Harrison (65 Thayer St.), in Boston, MA.

All images are courtesy of the artist and Allston Skirt Gallery.

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