Poised as though ready to leap out of the expansive, white void, Christopher Wool's perfectly balanced serial figures in Untitled operate as a flawless conflation of abstraction and figuration. Executed in 1989, not long after Wool had begun producing his iconic word-based paintings, Untitled invokes the energy and attitude that characterized these works with their tough, urban aesthetic. Untitled is related to a series of works begun in the mid-1980s, which were derived from decorative motifs. Flowers, birds and vegetation, once the ornamental adorning of wallpaper, were re-contextualized in a contemporary twist, introducing an intriguing tension between the original intention of the motif and its new purpose in his paintings.
At the heart of Wool's practice lies an interrogation of the discourse of contemporary painting. At a time when painting was enjoying a renaissance led by the flamboyance and sentiment of Neo-Expressionism, Wool was instead interrogating the conceptual and visual limitations of painting, redefining its possibilities. With its unique vernacular, Wool's paintings are the result of his inquiries involving the panoply of themes that have dominated American post-war art, including Minimalism, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism.
In a masterly stroke, Wool effortlessly combines the coolness of Pop Art with the auratic hand of the artist. Viewed at a distance, the serial motif on a monochrome background created by industrial painting techniques speaks of Pop's legacy with its depersonalized mechanical production process. Upon closer inspection, however, the replication of the motif dissolves to reveal six individual figures, each with their own unique expressions. Wool varies the stark, coal-black alkyd paint on his figures, achieving contingent fluctuations in their countenance: awe, surprise, concern and mischief greet the viewer, which in turn furnishes different readings of their gait, from that of furtive stealth to the pose of a funky dance movement.
Derived from the world of ornamentation, the figures of Untitled pay homage to the motifs of a bygone era. Here, placed in a contemporary milieu, they are stripped of their original meaning, recalling more readily the stenciled figures tagged around the gritty urban environment of post-Punk New York that nourished aspects of Wool's aesthetic. As Bruce Ferguson has suggested, 'Wool accepts that he is and that his paintings are, at any moment, within what Richard Prince calls 'wild history,' subject to the intertextual meeting of various discourses,' (B. Ferguson, quoted in A. Goldstein (ed.), Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art 1998, p. 256).
Wool's lustrous black figures configured with the aid of a stencil vividly contrasts the bold white acrylic ground on the aluminum support. They extend from the bottom of the canvas to the uppermost edge creating an allover effect, hinting at the wholeness and unity that Donald Judd spoke of in Minimalism's 'specific object'. The huge scale of the painting enhances this aspect, whilst paradoxically imbuing a rawness and life to Wool's characters constrained within the support's confines, giving the impression that at any opportune moment they might burst forth from the flat plane and enter amongst our midst.