Wardwell combines visuals, music to send message

Painter's work chosen for deCordova Museum's biennial exhibition

Joe Wardwell is interested in the idea of national identity – specifically, challenging it.

His landscape paintings, which closely follow the tradition of the famed 19th-century Hudson River School, also incorporate text with inspirations ranging from song lyrics to novel passages to political speeches.

“I’m really interested in who we are and how we define ourselves by our landscape,” Wardwell says.

His work, which takes on the notion of Manifest Destiny, is part of the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park biennial exhibition. Recently awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship for the 2012-2013 year, the Boston artist has taught in Brandeis’ fine arts department since 2001.

Four of his paintings – “Untied We Stand,” “Elaborate Plans,” “Acting Stupid” and “Civilian Control” – were chosen for the curated show, which emphasizes high-quality work from throughout New England rather than a particular theme. The exhibit will be on display through April 22.

Wardwell will also have a solo exhibition opening in March at Boston's LaMontagne Gallery.

Growing up predominantly in the Pacific Northwest, Wardwell was intimately familiar with the type of landscape so frequently depicted in the works of the Hudson River School artists. Those scenes are still seen today in modern advertising, in which rugged terrain and snow-capped mountains typically represent a truck’s or beer’s distinctly American qualities, he says.

By adding stylized text to the nostalgic, idealized landscapes – with sources ranging from the lyrics of Black Sabbath, Neil Young or the Doors; a phrase from Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” or speeches given by President Barack Obama, Wardwell “paints a remixed vision of the 2011 American political and cultural landscape,” curators of the exhibit wrote.

Sometimes the words or phrases immediately present themselves, Wardwell says, but when “trolling” for new inspiration, he most frequently looks to his music collection. Also a result of living outside of Seattle in the early 1990s, where music was a tremendous part of the youth culture, Wardwell both listens to and plays hard rock and metal.

“The music lyrics represent counter-culture, the antihero, an anti-propaganda message,” Wardwell says. “If [viewers] catch the reference right away, that’s fine. But I like to give it new meaning” by conflating it with imagery.

“Elaborate Plans” is the largest of his pieces at 6-by-10 feet, but in fitting with the musical focus, many of his works are 12 square inches, which is the size of a vinyl album jacket.

“You always hear ‘write what you know’,” Wardwell says. “This is the culmination of my art and living out West. Music and landscape – I use them as tools.”

Categories: Arts

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