By Gretchen Giles
FIRST OF ALL, I think that the human form is a very beautiful form and shape,” artist Alv Wilenius says, standing before the paintings hung ’round his under-house Rio Nido studio. Larger than life, painted in the distinct creams, tans, and pinks of the flesh, Wilenius’ figurative works–mostly of caul-faced men who seem to float in the viscous world of the canvas–have a heavy beauty, the limbs as thick with the fullness of life as Wilenius’ own. Probably because they’re modeled on Wilenius’ own.
“With a face, if you make it too specific, it also takes on a specific meaning,” he continues, gesturing towards an eyeless man, whose paint-shrouded face leans upward on the wall. “So sometimes I like to obscure the face to maintain a vagueness. I started out doing portraits, and I did some pretty nice pieces, but maybe because I was working as a mental health worker, [the patients] became more interesting as a subject matter than regular people.
“Because regular people, they have a lot of stuff, too,” Wilenius–whose day job indeed brings him in daily contact with the mentally disabled–says, looking directly at the reporter. “But it’s shielded, it’s hard to see. Whereas with mentally ill people, you can really see what’s happening with them.”
Seeing what’s happening with them is the theme of an exciting new exhibit, “From a Voyeur’s Diary,” now mounted by the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County in its storefront SoFo Gallery. Featuring works by Wilenius, Petaluma painter Susan Wolcott, Sonoma State professor Shane Weare, and sculptor Carol Setterlund, this examination of the little-seen and the intimate is staggeringly powerful in its scope.
Planning to mount a figurative show, co-curator Barbara Thoulion based the theme for this exhibit on the work she saw in Wilenius’ studio. “This is figurative work that is very vulnerable,” she says, standing in jeans amid the new-paint smell of the gallery, the show’s works arrayed on the floor or put casually against the walls in readiness for hanging. “I wanted it to be as though [viewers] are peeping into someone’s emotional secrets.”
After deciding on Wilenius, Thoulion approached painter Susan Wolcott, who prepared large, gromet-spiked canvases that reward long looking. Centering on the small, giving intimacies of the body–the back of the knee, the taut vulnerability of the Achilles tendon, the softness of the inner arm–Wolcott’s smart, chewy canvases grudgingly give their beauty away, her superb draftsmanship highlighted next to more abstract figures, repeating forms from E-Z Sew pattern transparencies married to the surface, hearts dropping like ripe plums from the opening in a chest.
Painter Shane Weare’s colors offer the disgruntled hues of burned scrambled eggs, yellow and brown washing the canvases from which nightmarish images of skull, monkey, chieftain, and anguished nude loom darkly. Surprisingly, gifted Cloverdale sculptor Carol Setterlund’s busts weigh in lightly amid her colleagues, much of her stronger work consigned already to a college exhibit in Southern California. Placed on found-wood podiums, these rakishly topped heads (she plops on one a nature-perfect tree branch) are clearly having too much fun–beachy and cool–for the darkness of this exhibit. Of exception is one of Setterlund’s older pieces, a curiously serene female bust–the slope from shoulder to breast cracking–that sits erectly postured and completely enfenced.
THE PURPOSE in my painting is not to produce these images that have all of this emotional content,” Wilenius says, back in his Rio Nido studio. “I paint because I want to paint and because I enjoy it. That’s the first thing–I really enjoy painting. The second thing is how I paint: how I use the material, how I dry the paint on the surface. And the third thing is what happens when I paint: what comes out in the struggle, what images appear.”
Known for the strong emotional content of his work–his rendering of a Norse god rising from the sea dangerously near another man’s genitals got him briefly booted from the Quicksilver Mine Co.’s then-Guerneville window–this Swedish native trained as an architect before coming to the States and enrolling at the San Francisco Art Institute. There the instructors, steeped in the school’s abstract expressionistic history, taught the painter to make figurative work with an abstract bent, adding a charged dimension to his heavy men.
We walk to one canvas hanging on the studio wall. A man lies cradling the egglike fragility of his head. He is at rest, limbs curved round, his genitals softly exposed. Above the figure a large expanse of canvas remains unmarked, the paint soothing and smooth. But at the top, a beaked vulva waits with perhaps a predatory patience. “You spoke of my paintings being dark,” Wilenius says, pointing at the canvas. “And this is the opposite to me. This is a happy picture to me. Because he’s all closed in and folded in on himself, and he’s content–there’s no drama going on.”
But what about the menacing genitals? “It’s the only thing that’s going to wake him up,” Wilenius laughs. “Maybe that’s what life is about. Anyway,” he chuckles again, “it’s my attempt to be happy.”
“From a Voyeur’s Diary” shows through Feb. 28 at the SoFo Gallery, 602 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. A reception for the artists is planned for Friday, Jan. 17, from 5 to 7 p.m. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, noon to 5. 579-ARTS.
From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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