At the age of 58, Vancouver's Neil Wedman is inching up into the category of senior artist. Yet, for the most part, he flies under the radar – an artist's artist with a devoted local following whose work is less well known to the world at large. There are several reasons for this: his chosen calling as a painter in a town whose reputation is defined by photography, the eccentricity of his interests (he recently made a study of vintage Vancouver sidewalks, and can expound on the subject with enthusiasm), and his practise of making figurative pictures that (perversely, intriguingly) border on indecipherability.
Despite being a painter, though, he shares key attributes with his hometown photo-brethren: a quirky sense of humour (think Rodney Graham) and an inclination to question the medium of photography. If Jeff Wall's photographs respond to the history of painting, infusing photography's ostensible veracity with narrative fancy, Wedman's paintings explore the flip side, taking images from his imagination and painting them in a manner that suggests black-and-white photography. Explosions in fireworks factories, rainbows in the desert, and dancing cowboys whooping it up by the campfire have been among his concoctions, characteristically painted in a monochromatic palette of blue or grey.
His new show at Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver brings us up to date with his current preoccupations, and the subject matter is classic Wedman: flying saucers hovering in mid-air, underwater volcanos spewing fiery lava, and newsprint pages rendered as abstracts, with each line of text reduced to a bar of pigment. In all three cases, the paintings and drawings are of things that can't be seen. The newspaper-page watercolours, he says, come from his interest in images in the movies of people reading the news. But what they are reading, he says, always (and maddeningly) lies just beyond our ability to understand. As with these watercolours, we are left with just the formal, gridded arrangement of light and shadow.
Wedman's large grey-on-grey ocean-floor volcano paintings, too, record something that defies observation. (It's dark down there, and how can one have shooting flames underwater?) The resulting images are thus befuddling. Looking at an exploding volcano, we assume that we are looking up, skyward, but the concentric rings at the top of the painting denote the water surface, which we are accustomed to experiencing as below us. Wedman thus delivers a torque to expectations. Up is down and down is up, air is water and water is air, and the glittering spray of ash seems to celebrate this combustible moment of confusion.
Wedman's smaller-scale drawings of volcanos and UFOs enact a kind of challenge to perception, rendered in liminal, barely-there gestures that deter conclusive reading. Employing soft conté crayon on woven paper, Wedman uses the texture of the paper to yield a delicate, pointillist effect, reminiscent both of the Ben-Day dots of mechanical reproduction (Roy Lichtenstein is an influence here) and the drawings of the French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, who tenderly recorded the play of light and darkness in the same manner. In Seurat, tangible reality appeared as a kind of apparition made possible through illumination, taking on a mystical quality. Wedman's flying saucers, pictured over the desert or hovering above a city skyline, likewise appear as phantoms signifying the mysterious unknown – what our brains seek to master through perception and cognition. They stand for what's out there, receding beyond the horizon of certainty, and for doubt as a vexing muse, both tormenting and delighting.
Neil Wedman: Selected Monochromatic Paintings and Works on Paper, Part Two of Two, at Charles H. Scott Gallery, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, continues until Feb. 24. His work can also be seen in the group show From Nature at Vancouver's Equinox Gallery, until Feb.16.