Executed in 1997, Mad Cow is a visually arresting painting that offers a stark panoply of signifiers and found decorative motifs in monochromatic black and white, awash with a matrix of canary yellow brush strokes. Realised on a large-scale aluminium panel, the work radiates with its layers of patterning, including flowers, hatchings, undulating lines and noughts and crosses reminiscent of a game of tic-tac-toe. The surface of the painting reveals the energetic process of its facture, riddled with white pentimenti, the inky remnants of Wool's screening process and dripped, expressive expanses of brilliant yellow. In purposefully leaving these traces, Wool invokes the multiple legacies of American Post-War painterly abstraction, Pop art, and Minimalism, consciously addressing the challenges that face contemporary image-making. As Bruce W. Ferguson has suggested, 'Wool accepts that he is and that his paintings are, at any moment, within what Richard Prince calls 'wild history', subject to the intertextual meeting of various discourses' (B. Ferguson, quoted in A. Goldstein (ed.), 'What they're not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool', ed. A. Goldstein Christopher Wool, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1998, p. 256).
Christopher Wool's practice has consistently drawn from its temporal context, developing in dialogue with the artistic colleagues of his generation. Beginning in the 1980s, Wool interacted with diverse artists including Robert Gober, Philip Taaffe, Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley who emerged alongside him in the dynamic context of that decade. In particular, Wool was impressed by Post-Minimalist process artists such as Richard Serra whose sculptures incorporating thrown lead deeply informed his approach to obscuring and patterning as displayed in Mad Cow. Whilst Wool's early works incorporated semi-figurative elements, he had already by this stage restricted himself to a limited color palette of red, black and white and was palpably more captivated by the properties of paint and its process of application than by its content; a predilection abundantly clear in Mad Cow. Indeed as the artist once professed, 'I became more interested in 'how to paint it' than 'what to paint'' (C. Wool, interview with A. Goldstein, Ibid., p. 258).
As Wool's practice evolved over time, he became increasingly influenced by Jackson Pollock, articulated in his series of Silver paintings and Drip paintings. It was Pollock and Abstract Expressionism's attachment to covering the full extent of the canvas that prompted Wool's foray into the use of generic stenciled rollers, celebrating banal images of flowers and dots amongst other things. Wool's use of rollers was a seminal step that brought his technique closer to the silkscreen paintings of Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Like Warhol, Wool was embracing mechanical reproduction in his process of picture making, repeating decorative elements but without inherent meaning or associations.
In 1987-1988, Wool initiated the use of stencilled words and rubber stamps to his stable of effects, broadening his imagery from the ready-made imprints of the rollers and adding additional inputs to the image-making process. From 1992, Wool retired his use of rollers and rubber stamps but continued to employ their specific effects through Warhol's favored medium, screenprinting. In Mad Cow, the multiple floral motifs employed are derived from blow-ups of Wool's earlier rollers and stencil designs. They recall Warhol's silkscreen Flowers, installed in multiples at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1964.
Through Wool's overprinting, clogging and slippage with the silkscreen he invokes a unique grittiness and intensity less prevalent in Warhol's paintings. As Ann Goldstein has described, the rectilinear traces of the silkscreen frames act 'like a disembodied picture of a picture, they frame a painting within a painting' (Ibid.). In Mad Cow, Wool also embraces pentimenti, engaging with the process of erasure through the use of radiant, canary yellow and white semi-opaque paint. The work becomes a complex field of decorative elements partially obscured yet rendered somehow more intriguing. Rather than abandoning the original motifs, the spectator is drawn increasingly to the possibilities of what might be represented underneath rather than on top of the painterly smoke screen. Through the myriads of patterns, lines and shapes Mad Cow appears to have developed its own vernacular or hieroglyphic system drawing parallels with the word paintings Wool began in 1987. Both the text paintings and Mad Cow share an interest in layering, but for Mad Cow it is not a question of meaning but of process, successively building up and unbuilding its composition.
In Mad Cow, Wool boldly addresses the conflicts inherent to contemporary image-making, affirming his continued belief in the medium. Through his specific engagement with the history of Post-War American art, he registers with Pop art's methods of mechanized production, Minimalism's emphatic denial of the author and painterly abstraction's privileging of form over content. In Mad Cow, Wool embraces all of these paradigms, uniting notions of the abstract and figurative, painting versus print, picture and process in order to explore the boundaries of contemporary painting.