Pulp fictions

Douglas Witmer’s meditative works on wood and paper

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Pulp fictions
Makenna Whiteside

I Found a Reason

Works by Douglas Witmer
through Oct. 9
Cornell Fine Arts Museum

Generally, being told that an upcoming art show features work made of “found materials” triggers an expectation of excess: baby dolls and bike parts draped with gaudy strings of beads, all nailed to a board and splashed with house paint. That couldn’t be further from the truth here – Douglas Witmer’s abstractions on lined grade-school paper and odd offcuts of lumber offer no such excess, but rather a candy-colored minimalism. His playful show at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, I Found a Reason, consists of pieces from two bodies of work: The School Papers and Fruitville. The work in both series is stripped down to mere fields or blocks of color, yet all vibrate with the sensuality of texture.

The School Papers half of the show is a series of paintings made on cheap, pulpy paper – and despite the austere palette of color and shape applied to the yellowish-gray sheets, they communicate a simple and universal experience. You can see Witmer testing the limits of the materials – materials we’re all familiar with – in the delicate fringe of a ripped edge, the blots and skips of an ink line, the peeling border of a slash of acrylic paint, the soft bleed of gesso. The aggregation of tiny variations develops like a meditation; the repeated interaction of color and paper slowly builds a body of knowledge, much as a child learns to write by repeating the same motions over and over.

Fruitville, likewise, basks in the primacy of the senses. Fruitville refers to a street near where Witmer was raised, but it’s impossible not to associate the word “fruit” with the little slices and chunks of brightly colored wood on the wall. If School Papers is a bit stringent in its limited range of shapes and muted colors, Fruitville incites in the viewer the desire to create. The accessible materials – small slabs and bits of cast-off wood – are well-served by Witmer’s lively, nearly naive manipulation of them with acrylic paint, colored wax pencil, chalk, grip tape, blobs of colored adhesive and, it seems, whatever else might be at hand. Belying the extreme flatness of the color treatments, CFAM’s installation and lighting creates deep shadows under many of the pieces, emphasizing their dimensionality and tactile quality (but don’t touch, even if you’re tempted).

If there is any message imparted by I Found a Reason, it’s the importance of play to contemplation – and vice-versa; the strict geometric gestures and somber hues of School Papers are the flip side to Fruitville’s pure, clear tones and madcap angularity.

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