Jeff Wetzig: Check Paper Size and Direction

Date Tuesday, January 8
through Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Location Johnson Gallery

Event Description

Everyone has stepped up to a photocopy machine, laid down the original, pressed the “Start” button, only to have the machine question their technological ability. Instead of printing, the machine’s display gives instructions: “check paper size and direction.” This is the machine’s message to you when it calls what you have done into question. This is also Jeff Wetzig’s title for the exhibition of his most recent body of art. So what does the modern, mechanical whirr and click sound of spitting out fifty copies of the same image into a plastic tray in less than a minute have in common with the silent, meditative creation of fifty delicate hand-made prints done in the traditional Japanese moku hanga technique over many months?

The question gets at an underlying premise in Wetzig’s recent work. Namely, that something interesting happens when elements from the mentality of modern technology that is all about speed and efficient economies intersects with elements from ancient technologies that are based in meditation on life’s processes and paradoxes. Here the sensitive nuances of color, hand-carved lines and pale inks on delicate Japanese paper are used to create the images of a modern desktop photocopier and paper shredder. The first (itself a “print-maker’), used to reproduce a document, giving it life as it goes out into the world of information, is titled, “Birth,” while the second, used to destroy those same documents to protect one’s identity, is titled, “Death.” At least since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the ambiguous relationship between humanness and mechanization, between the hand-made as personal and the mass-produced as impersonal has teased the artist. With an understated irony, Wetzig uses an ancient and contemplative process for making images, to now make images of the very objects that mass-produce today’s images. This kind of Moebius Strip relation of image-production-meaning runs throughout this body of work.

In other pieces he uses it to provoke profoundly subtle and humorous contradictions in today’s society. "Quixote’s America" is a case in point. This sculpture—really more like a documentation of his printmaking process—is about the way that Chinese wood-block artists produced prints. We can see here exactly how they secured down a sheaf of paper next to the carved wood block, inked the block, printed a page, then slipped that page into a slot in order to print the next page, and so on. We can see how this process allowed the artist to guarantee correct registration of each page when the artist then re-carved the block for the second color, and once again printed page by page.

As a sculptural piece, this beautifully reveals process and form. But as with the photocopier and shredder, this is also a metaphor. Wetzig had doubled the production by having two sheaves of paper and two carved blocks. These occupy the same table but are divided by the slot down the middle. While this slot is functional for the process, Wetzig makes it meaningful as division of opposites that, clearly, need each other for completion. The metaphor in this formal structure is made clear by the images being produced. Both sides are, in fact, producing the very same image (a windmill), except that their colors are different. One is red, the other blue. In a contentious election year, occurring after two previous and highly contentious elections, this piece grabs our attention. Indeed, the block used for printing the blue windmill actually shares the same side of the table as the book of red windmill prints, just as the other side of the table used for printing the red windmills shares the same space as the book of blue windmill prints. In other words, there is a lot more than just windmills going round and round here. The table top as a whole space itself becomes a whirligig turning from blue carving to red printing to red carving to blue printing, all of the same motion but ostensibly split down the middle into opposite an irreconcilable parties.

Baudrillard claims that the intense attacks of the Left on the Right, and of the Right on the Left are only appearances of differences. He claims that actually each party understands full well that it both needs and wants the other as its enemy in order to fuel its own claims and keep it in the running. In today’s election, both parties are now the “change” party. The rhetoric of each, if one zooms back the lens and steps outside of the emotional heat, is essentially an inversion of the other’s last statement or strategic move. Wetzig’s "Quixote’s America" uses the very methods of printmaking to place the positive image of the red windmill on the same side of the table as the inverse (carved) image of its opponent, the blue windmill, while putting the positive blue image on the same side with its opponent, the inverse red image. Now the imagery spins round and round til the kinetic energy of the motion between positive and negative claims makes us too dizzy over strategy and impassioned loyalties to keep the actual good of the whole in sight.

Despite the deep divide down the middle, both are of the same table and the same process. Apparently each needs the accusations and hatred of the other in order to define itself, that definition therefore having less and less to do with the big issues than with its disdain for the opponent. It is easier to go round and round than to lay down hostilities and address the larger condition. What was T.S. Eliot’s line in Burnt Norton? “Distracted from distraction by distraction/Filled with fancies and empty meaning…” This total work is about spinning in place without ever going forward. There is something hugely and deliciously foolish about Don Quixote righteously attacking windmills in the name of chivalrous honor, not seeing the giants for the forest of his own delusions.

Wetzig’s prints in this exhibition repeatedly bear this kind of quiet, even gentle challenge to our convictions. Cage Match, occupying an entire wall, employs the power of optical illusion and one-point perspective to underscore the same kind of naïve loyalties and so-called differences implied in Quixote’s quest. Here we see a huge chain-link fence staking out a large territory with no gates to let us in or out. Using optical illusion and perspective as a formal device that fascinates the viewer, Wetzig creates a space where one is not sure which end of the fenced yard in closer. It throbs back and forth, with the top receding and then advancing. Where one stands is thrown off balance. But at the center of this fenced space are two smaller fences, each staking out its own territory within the larger fence. Again, one is red and one is blue. Again, these are oppositional, each staking out its righteous territory, implying that you would be safe within their boundaries, but seemingly unaware that their positions are actually quite small within the larger compound. (We should remember that accurate one-point linear perspective was invented in the Renaissance simultaneously by two different groups with two different motives: one was the artists, who used it to construct perfectly ordered worlds of beauty within the illusion of depth on a flat plane; the other was the military who used it to triangulate their calculations for firing cannons more accurately at their enemy. But as Erwin Panofsky pointed out, linear perspective itself is a symbolic form, usable to promote both beauty and ideology.)

With a subtle irony, both the red and blue fences are exactly the same shape and size, their only difference being that one is slightly left, the other slightly right of the divide down the center. But measured against the enormity of the large fence, the territory each stakes out feels insignificant, impotent, even irrelevant given the far larger fence that engulfs and miniaturizes both.

In sharp contrast is the wall-size work on the other end of the gallery. "Nulle Dies Sine Linea," (No Day Without a Line) consists of fifty wood-block prints, each of one page torn from a spiral sketchbook and translated into a line print. All are the same, except that in the tearing process—the process of individual experience—each has become different. For some, the little square holes remained mostly intact, while for others, many of the holes were ripped off or folded over. In a few cases, the page itself tore and so a black line representing that flaw runs part way inside it. For an artist, the daily sketchbook, “no day without a line,” is the lifeblood of staying alive, of sustaining creativity, vitality and growth. But for the rest of us, that might be a journal, a diary, a daily prayer or confession. One page is one day, a book is a life. We draw or write or live one page at a time, yet we understand there is a total image—a wall of the whole, a whole life—that is accumulating.

The beauty of Wetzig’s work throughout this exhibition is that his polemics are actually not polemical. He uses humor to suggest that both sides of every righteous claim are most likely naïve and too small. His work argues more for balance, for reconciliation. More for an embrace of the daily process of being makers rather than the hard-edged territory of our positions. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the most subtle works in the exhibition, "Fibonacci’s Detritus, I-III." In the first of these three images, we see a wood-block print of a single curved wood chip. This represents the thousands of chips carved in the process of making his work. It is insignificant as the detritus of life’s efforts. But we know that its removal from the wood block is what made the image on the block visible, and so in reverse, its image speaks of a loss that gave life to the image.

Fibonacci’s sequence is a mathematical sequence where each new number is the product of the previous two numbers, such that it grows in a sequence that seems on the surface non-logical (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,21…), but is in fact ordered by a richly organic and syncopated principle full of rhythm that feels alive, not rigid or static. Following that principle, Wetzig saved all the wood chips produced by carving away the block for the single wood chip. These then became the basis for the second image in "Fibonacci’s Detritus." In carving that image, of course, many more chips were produced, which in turn became the basis for the third version. And so on. The idea that the throw away parts, the rejected ones, the negatives that are insignificant because we are so busy looking only at the positive image they defined; the idea that this detritus might itself produce a beautiful and organic, imagery that grows has deep social, political and spiritual implications for how we could regard one another. It also stands as a kind of critique of the bipolar, red versus blue model of growth and culture which society favors because it is easier to stake out one’s territory and hate the other than to reconcile and address the whole.

Wayne L. Roosa, Art Historian


Michelle Westmark
Gallery Director and Assistant Professor of Art