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Fred Weatherford's work is better experienced than described.

Fishing for Meaning


Sometimes, the more difficult art is to write about, the more respect the writer realizes from it. Like the proverbial grandfather catfish that eludes the fisherman, it's just a big exciting shape in the water that can't be dinner. Fred Weatherford's show at Artspace is like that. The attempt to describe it or interpret it requires relying on the early information-processing method of empiricism in order to bait the line. If you can't catch it, you can at least tell how the thing fought and what worms you might recommend.

Have you ever angered the red area around an insect bite by scratching it to obsession, or pinched yourself hard and felt it startle a set of nerves elsewhere, or longed desperately for something that would not respond to your appeal, or utterly forsaken a long-held belief in order to subscribe to a new one? These are the sort of raw but routine situations that may come initially to mind in the presence of Weatherford's strange and mercurial work.

Weatherford paints large original acrylic scenes of vivid color and excited activity. They are essentially figurative, featuring human-esque characters in a field of chaos exploding with energy and fellow creatures. Perhaps it would be more accurate to categorize all of Weatherford's animated forms simply as vertebrates. As both animal and human, they display many shared expressive qualities including sharp, bared teeth and a painterly furriness. All give the impression of operating at the type of instinctual levels required by nature. Basically asexual, the subjects vary most distinctly in posture and gesture with each painting organized uniquely to narrate its own set of circumstances. Weatherford's figures are built up from silhouetted shapes laced with color and brushstroke. He uses the same psychedelic matter on the landscape he places his subjects in, perhaps as an adjustment to the scriptural position that mankind's origins come from the clay that surrounds him. Weatherford's unique approach to painting is accrete, or formed by accumulation, like stars and coral reefs, attracting whatever substance gets too close.

Although the press release on Weatherford's work describes his scenes as symbolic, I wonder at this statement. Symbolism requires symbols or signs, concepts the viewer is invited to recognize in order to reconstruct the essence of the artist's message. Given how oblique the work is, plus its disinclination to be titled, this description might be a little too confining when viewing Weatherford's work. It is more fulfilling to respond to the blistering irrational edginess of the work without the "Where's Waldo" dissatisfaction of seeking symbols that have actually been disguised as much as possible.

The universality of Weatherford's paintings is really a deep neurological experience that occurs outside of symbol. Instead, it seems, the primal reaction should be the fundamental consideration, not the intellectual effort to identify specific meaning. There the itchy response to any base need would have been interconnected to a whole system of reaction. In that world, the result of an insect bite is not a trip to the medicine cabinet, but rather something more significant — a hissing, contractile, momentous acknowledgement of existence or extinction, surpassing yearning and grief and all other ego business on its way to the absolute of living: to the snake biting its own tail. Without specifically rendering such a prototypical image, that seems more of what Weatherford imagines when he makes his nervous, ecstatic paintings that he considers sanctuaries to survival.