Striking its viewer with a sudden, full-force collision, Christopher Wool's If You emerges as the ultimate "Fuck You" statement in contemporary art. Hauling language and materials from the streets, Wool drags grit from the underbelly of the industrial urban environment into the expansive history of fine art. Gridded out over eight columns and six rows, "IF YOU CANT TAKE A JOKE YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE" is undeniably raw, impactful and affecting--a gnomic and startling scrawled reprimand fitted out in aggressive block lettering with loose paint dripping from its edges. The artist's bold, edgy and uncompromising censure bursts its framing structure. As a statement of rebuke within the format of a painting, If You's brashness is reinforced by the materials of its making. Substituting aluminum for canvas and enamel paint for oils, Wool has slyly tweaked art historical tradition while accosting comprehension.
Mediated by cinema, television and other forms of mass advertising, Wool's generation involved the viewer in a kaleidoscopic sequence of appropriations. Reaching deeper into the art historical past, Wool appropriated catchphrases from the vernacular, re-imagined them as painted images, and, by doing so, called meaning into question. His stacked vocabulary disrupts understanding and works metaphorically both as an iconic symbol and cunning cipher. Despite myriad cultural references to mythic-sized word play to the history of the medium, Wool remains emphatically an artist in the traditional sense: "I always considered myself involved with painting. I can't imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it's a painting. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else" (C. Wool, "Conversation with Christopher Wool," with Martin Prinzhorn, Museum in Progress, 1997, http://www.mip.at/attachments/222).
Executed in 1992, If You recalls a series of works Wool created nearly four years earlier. Adopting the deadpan, Borscht Belt one-liners made famous by his friend and collaborator, Richard Prince, Wool reappropriated Prince's I never had a penny to my name so I changed my name, and I went to see a psychiatrist, he said tell me everything, I did, and now he is doing my act in his own signature style. Originally taken by Prince from popular culture as a way of destabilizing the idea of art as highbrow academic pursuit, Wool's reappropriation of the jokes deliberately alienated him from the idea of the artist as a singular creative genius further questioning the notion of originality. As a result, his seemingly nihilistic approach to image making challenges the viewer's right to expect anything from art. Superficially acting in defense of his earlier work, If You directly corresponds to this earlier series. However, unlike the one-liners, If You turns the joke on the audience. The fiercely combative statement, 'IF YOU CANT TAKE A JOKE YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE' goads the viewer--directly questioning whether they are part of the in crowd, and subsequently suggesting that, if not, then it is their loss.
This type of blunt message is similarly featured in other word paintings by Wool, with such statements as 'FUCK EM IF THEY CANT TAKE A JOKE' (FUCKEM, 1992) or 'AND IF YOU DONT LIKE IT YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE' (And If, 1992). Wool's use of lettering and his purposeful exclusion of spacing creates a daunting atmosphere for the phrase presented. Nearly bursting out of their frame, the letters of Wool's profanity highlight the air-tight parameters of the canvas, giving the words a sense of emergence from the background, assaulting the viewer with their insistent declaration. Composed of large black letters, each word is staggered out across the expanse of the aluminum, and yet the message is tightly constrained within the edges of a sizable support. Wool confines his command into a strict grid--eight rows across, and seven columns down. It is through this breakdown of pictorial order that visual chaos ensues. Initially unable to digest the words, the viewer--seeing only letters--must methodically read through the painting in several streams of consciousness as the starts and stops of each word begin to materialize. It is here, when the viewer finds security in deciphering Wool's code, that the initial meaning is lost within the painting and a whole new field of significance emerges. In the act of decoding his painting, the letters gain meaning as we recite the statement, digest it, and, in so doing, become part of the artistic process. As the words in turn are directed at us, we understand the underlying intent present in the phrase, which retains an elusive air, refusing to be easily deciphered and thus remaining all the more ominous.
Wool's use of gargantuan lettering creates an intimidating atmosphere, and the claustrophobic nature of the composition, combined with his extensive use of under-painting, pushes the words out towards the viewer with a distinct sense of energy and force. The foreboding feeling derived from its content is heightened by the artist's carefully chosen typeface, selecting a font similar to the one adopted by the U.S. military after the Second World War, and subsequently used across the globe for its immediate legibility. Wool matches the utilitarian nature of the design with the functional nature of its execution, which when combined with its physical size, creates a work that possesses a stark sense of authority. This tension between the physical properties of the work and its psychological effect lies at the heart of Wool's artistic practice as he subverts the conventions of language to render his painting with a surreal sense of simplicity that belies its inward complexity.
The multidimensional nature of If You can be seen in the complex integration of technique and form that permeates the different layers of this work. The aluminum that Wool uses as his support gives the work an inexorable aura--imbued with an incredible sense of power and permanence by its weighty, solid and uniform surface. On top of this, Wool lays down numerous layers of clean white paint and stenciled letters with an increasing sense of urgency as depicted by the drips and splashes of paint that invade his dramatic composition. This combination recalls the hurried work of the graffiti artists who tagged the skin of Wool's native Chicago during the unhappy decades of the 1970s and 1980s, when widespread urban decay resulted in a lost generation of youth.
Coursing through the gritty edge of art history, Wool's If You is an affecting reminder of the in-your-face shock that such artist's as Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol contributed to the art of their time, as well as the continuation of the wryly humorous witticisms of bad boy artists Bruce Nauman, Richard Prince and Maurizio Cattelan. Here, Wool takes Duchamp's colloquial play on words in L.H.O.O.Q. to a new level. While Duchamp coyly masks his reference of 'Elle a chaud a cul' or 'She is hot in the arse' through a series of letters, Wool's attempt is not so sly. Instead, he employs extreme starkness of Richard Prince's Joke paintings with the raw grit of Pollock or de Kooning's painted surfaces in an attempt to evoke the same shock as Maurizio Cattelan's sculptures of Hitler or hanging children, and Bruce Nauman's aggressively in your face Punch and Judy neons.
As with his contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool's word paintings took their inspiration from the graffiti-covered streets of New York. "Jean-Michel Basquiat loved the 'do-it-yourself' bilingual bricolage esthetic of Alphabet City, the district of improvisational bootstrap enterprise," cited Glenn O'Brien, writer and producer of Basquiat's Downtown 81. "Wool, another far-Eastsider, has a similar romance with the fringe New York, the no man's land, the interzone, the DMZ, and the ruins of concrete jungle. Where Basquiat gleaned pop cues from that world, Wool finds an alphabet of symbolic abstractions. Here is the action paining of the unconscious--accidental splashes and streaks that mark fields of blighted architecture. The over-painting of his large canvases resembles nothing more than the amateur abstract paintings that are the whitewashed windows of empty store fronts" (G. O'Brien, "Apocalypse and Wallpaper," in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Christopher Wool, Köln, 2012, pp.10-11).
There is a post-Pop intensity to the stenciled letters in Wool's word paintings. With the same renegade authority as the graffiti message that originally inspired them-the words "SEX LUV" painted on the side of a white truck-the compulsion felt by the viewer to read the words and then flee, gives this text a sense of "street power." Wool's art is not the descendent of advertising that Pop was, but, rather, it is the product of the disjointed writings of the urban landscape; the warnings, boasts, insults and territorial markers represented in the scrawled markings of graffiti. At the same time, the "no-frills" stenciling of the letters recalls Minimalism, especially the word works of Joseph Kosuth (for example, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word 'Definition', 1966-1968). However, where Kosuth's works were deliberately self-contained and hermetically sealed by the words that they formed, Wool's work is rogue: it is a disjointed phrase that points to the ambiguity of language and syntax. On the one hand, this allows Wool to question the content of paintings, the narrative elements of art. Yet, on the other hand, stripped of any context, the lament shouted from within If You becomes surreal and unsettling, a sinister echo rendered incarnate in its functional yet brutal stenciled letters.
After spending a period of time working with Richard Poussette-Dart, Wool began making all-over abstractions of accumulated mark-making. Of particular importance to him was also the process-based art of Richard Serra, especially Serra's "splash pieces," such as Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift. These sculptures became central to Wool's ideas about process, the importance of layering in relation to painting, and specifically to picture-making. In fact, there is a strong connection between Wool and Pollock, aside from the prevalence of painterly drips found in their works, Wool, too, is-in contemporary terms-a sort of action painter. As O'Brien explained, "One of the subtitles in Harold Rosenberg's essay The American Action Painters from 1959 is Apocalypse and Wallpaper. That makes a nice tag for what Wool is up to. ...That title sums up the way in which Wool is a perfect bridge between the action painters championed by Rosenberg and the generations that followed and sometimes opposed them. He is the pop/action painter, an action/reaction painter, almost a true fusion of abstract expressionism and pop-a noble bastard if ever there was one. The word paintings are hard edge on the edge. It's not reduction ad absurdum or a send-up. It's painting with attitude. It's not exactly Robert Ryman with lyrics, or Ad Reinhardt meets concrete poetry, but it's up that alley. It's about the aura of the stencil, about energy radiating and splashing from the confines of the character. It's sign painting with feedback" (G. O'Brien, ibid., p. 10).
"One could superficially interpret Wool's paintings as parodies of Pollock's seriousness, as a cynical re-enactment of action painting utilizing an impoverished bag of tricks hijacked from vandalism," O'Brien expands. "But then one would be missing the point. No, Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and he then manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a Pop artist or Dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low. But despite the many apparent contradictions, the work is singular, strong, organic and as deep as it might appear shallow" (G. O'Brien, ibid., p. 9).
If You is a powerful example not only of the art of its time but also continues to be of robust relevance today. Showcasing the ongoing debates that raged about the significance of painting, they also reflect the life experiences of a new generation of artists growing up in the tough urban environment of the early 1990s. If You's directness, both aesthetically and conceptually, stands as an exceptional example of Wool's work from this important period. The ambiguity of the syntax is as uncanny as it is menacing, and allows Wool to fundamentally question the content of paintings and re-interpret the narrative elements of art in a thoroughly modern context.