In this day and age, given the Internet’s penchant for making heroes of mortal men, it’s a wonder that Los Angeles painter Norton Wisdom hasn’t yet ascended to the status of folk legend. From anti-war activist to Malibu lifeguard (and part of the inspiration for Baywatch), the myriad titles accrued by Wisdom over the years have only served to add depth and color to his primary career as an artist. Not that his work has ever wanted for color, mind you, of either the literal or figurative sort: both his live and his studio work draw their impact in large part from the vivid hues that are a staple of Wisdom’s abstract style. And, yes, I said “live work”—in addition to sculpting and painting on canvas, Wisdom has been painting with live music since 1964, publicly marking a fiberglass screen with his brushstrokes alongside performances by musicians such as ex-Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and artist/one-man band Llyn Foulkes.
Foulkes also happens to be a lifelong friend of Wisdom’s, so it makes perfect sense that, when gallery owner Robert Berman decided it was high time for a proper gallery showcase of Wisdom’s studio work, Foulkes was the obvious choice of curator. The resulting retrospective, “It’s About Fu*king Time (Part One)”—a “painting survey” of Wisdom’s work from 1970 through today—is just as vivid and chaotic as you might expect. Wisdom has dedicated the overwhelming majority of his studio career to the expression of a single form: a trapezoidal proscenium. Wisdom has painted this structure onto canvas after canvas, each time using it as a vessel through which to realize new and disparate possibilities of color and texture.
In touring the rooms and corners of the Robert Berman Gallery, visitors are confronted with vastly varied permutations of this relatively straightforward format: his 1969 barbed-wire construction, in three dimensions, of three such trapezoidal structures side by side (this piece is untitled, as are all others in the exhibition); a gouache and graphite sketch from the same year of nine such shapes arranged in a grid; then, of course, there are his innumerable oil paintings, some matte and washed-out, others so thick with ridges and layers of richly-hued paint that they could almost be considered sculptures. In many, the proscenium-esque framework of the painting is starkly evident; in others, it melts into the piece, becoming more of a vaguely-recognizable guideline along which for the colors in the work to duke it out with each other.
When viewing the show en masse, however, the trapezoidal shape emerges as a unifying form, one that allows for the abstract expression of innumerable different moods and techniques—as if to reassure us that the infinite encounters and emotions alluded to in Wisdom’s work are all part and parcel of a single, unified understanding: that of the human experience.
“It’s About Fu*king Time (Part 1)” will be on view at Robert Berman Gallery in Los Angeles through December 21.