John Wilde (American, 1991–2006), Murder, 1983, oil on wood, 8 x 10 in. Gift of Bill McClain.
The late John Wilde (1919-2006) is a legend among Wisconsin artists, and rightfully so. He was a master of what has been dubbed "magic realism" (think surrealism's cousin), and his paintings and drawings are eerie, unsettling and dark -- and all the more convincing because of his incredible technique.
Wilde was trained in art history as well as studio art, and it shows. There are plenty of nods to history, from the choice of silverpoint as a drawing medium, to the double-portrait-in-profile format, to still-life compositions laden with meaning.
In that sense, Wilde seems of a piece with an older generation of Wisconsin artists: people who were firmly of their time -- or ahead of it -- but who also had a great reverence and knowledge of the art that had preceded them. I'd include Hollandale's Warrington Colescott, 89, in that camp, and the late James Watrous (1908-1999).
If you already know Wilde's work, you surely won't miss the Chazen Museum of Art's current exhibition, The Magic of John Wilde, running through July 25. And if you haven't seen Wilde yet, well, what are you waiting for?
Wilde's paintings mine difficult subjects: love, sex, revulsion, decay, death. The oil paintings, in particular, are disquieting little things: many of them are small, their size belying the odd charge they give off.
The 1983 painting Murder shows a female nude reclining on the ground, arms behind her head. A green, yellow and black banded snake begins to slither between her open legs. There's a rocky outcropping in the distance, a beach ball floating languidly in the sky, and a diseased tree. While there's no act of sex or violence going on, it's certainly an undercurrent, a dangerous possibility, like a downed electrical line near a puddle in a rainstorm.
The larger painting With Friends (1987-88) is filled with many of Wilde's recurring images: nude women, a cloudless blue sky, dogs and other animals. Wilde includes himself in a strange tableau of pallid, grotesque bodies.
Balancing out the more extreme works are things like Wilde's sensitive 1972 pencil drawing of a heron skull seen from three different angles, and a 1995 painting of "regular guys" from the artist's hometown of Cooksville, near Evansville, Wis.
While it's a relatively small show, The Magic of John Wilde spans about a half-century of the artist's work. And although the Chazen addition slated to open in 2011 will feature a room dedicated to magic realism, there's no reason to wait to see the work of Wilde, whose reputation and impact extend far beyond Wisconsin.