At Leedy-Voulkos, Patrick Duegaw’s Wrong Tools make great big art
The late author David Foster Wallace remains best known for his sprawling, prodigious Infinite Jest, a large-canvas novel encompassing hundreds of characters and multiple plot threads. By turns horrifying, funny and sad, the book (and its 100 pages of endnotes) touches on professional sports, addiction, mass media, mathematics and geopolitics. This high dynamic range was both a virtue of the book’s bigness and a mirror held up to America’s supersized culture. Still, there were critics. “Perfect, however, Infinite Jest is not,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in her 1996 New York Times review. “This 1,079-page novel is a ‘loose baggy monster,’ to use Henry James’ words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace’s mind.” As if one could preserve the book’s brilliance while eliminating its enabling trait.
There is vice in American vastness, to be sure (rest in peace, Hummer), but its place in the national character is undeniable. Absorbing a large-scale work and measuring its maker’s aspirations are profoundly satisfying. Case in point: Wichita artist Patrick Duegaw, who paints real big, to put it succinctly. He’s a balls-out visual maximalist, and the major pieces in his exhibit The Wrong Tools (for the Job) show his ambition in successive layers.
He assembles shapes, cut from sheetrock, into meticulous, interlocking configurations on a wood substrate, like tile work. These alone would be valid stand-alone works. But Duegaw then paints vivid, intensely observed images over them, the hyper-realism of which contrasts the gestural minimalism of the underlying assemblies. So in any single piece, Duegaw exhibits mastery of multiple styles and media: minimalism and immoderation, sculpture and painting, drawing and poetry. And the pieces themselves are imposing, their largeness accommodating Duegaw’s varied interests and concentration on detail.
The show takes its title from a series of mixed-media works centered on tools. The focus of “Electrical Mayhem With Caulking Gun” is the titular object, its manufacturer’s logos and trademarks lovingly re-created. Surrounding it, Duegaw has created scribbly drawings of electrical infrastructure, sockets and conduit, slithering across the substrate in a display of Sharpie-marker spontaneity that contrasts the deliberation of the painted elements.
“My Mother Would Always Make Me Go to Vienna (or) My Mother Would Always Make Me Go to Vienna” is a sheetrock aggregation depicting a pair of scissors, over which Duegaw has painted a pinch-faced man twisting a pinky ring. On the ring is a design that resolves in close-up as a tiny detailed portrait. A seemingly deserted carnival looms darkly in the background. The figure, exaggerated and expressive without sinking to caricature, takes on a heightened presence typical of the artist’s approach to people.
In the complex diptych “Two Rooms With Insufficient Light (or) Portraits of Ken and Mel,” twin panels depict square rooms. The ceilings and walls, cut from sheetrock, suggest with their texture a receding one-point perspective. Light fixtures, negative-space cutouts in the sheetrock, hang from the ceilings.
In the first room, Duegaw has rendered a pensive woman holding a sharply detailed, paper coffee cup, but there’s much more going on: The utilitarian surface of sheetrock in two shades contrasts the luster of the brushwork. A ghostly visual echo appears next to the woman, sitting in much the same position, as though the room is also occupied by an artist’s study for her portrait. And because she is painted across the joints of the underlying assembly, she herself appears spectral, the room’s edges visible through her body. In the second panel, a man winds his watch alongside his own ghostly double.
Why isn’t this too much? What sounds, in description, difficult to comprehend is completely coherent visually. One reason: The richness of Duegaw’s textures, which sometimes evoke the laborious dry-brush tempera of Andrew Wyeth (though Duegaw works in acrylic).
Duegaw’s ambitions and refinement also show in the studies that he exhibits here next to several of the finished works. In two studies for an upcoming work titled “An Unreasonable Couch (or) Portraits of John & George,” Duegaw uses pen and ink to render a leather sofa of such monumental length that it would be impossible to reproduce in these pages without an expensive triple-foldout insert. At the ends of the couch, Duegaw has drawn a small boy with his father. The inclusion of a high-def pen-and-ink drawing among these mixed-media paintings deepens the show’s insight into Duegaw’s skills and range.
Like the late-20th-century American literary maximalists, Duegaw is smart and ambitious. And if the obscurities and incongruities in many of his images seem self-indulgent or less than audience-friendly, he’s really inviting you — in the manner of Wallace, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo — to meet him halfway. And with all due respect to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michiko Kakutani, less is not more. More is more. And sometimes more more is very, very good.