Windows in our hands
Gwenn Thomas, with inserts by David Gruber and Alexander Jackson Wyatt
EXILE Gallery
by Robin Waart

Gwenn Thomas, Rare Earth Magnet I-IV, 2022. Painting on photographic paper, 50,8 x 61 cm. Rare Earth Magnet, 2022. Installation view, EXILE Gallery, Vienna.

“The words (she was looking at the window) sounded as if they were floating like flowers on water out there, cut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves.”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

phrase, she was looking at the window, is repeated a number of times throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. [1] In it the narrator describes, even parenthetically, the act of looking “at” the window before her – as if the window pane, with or without the frame around it, weren’t transparent but a thing in itself, worthy of our focus, attention, absorption, making us aware there are different ways of seeing (through, out, at the things before us). Woolf’s expression, standing out in 1927 and by now, of course, highly contemporary, used to condemn the act of staring and glaring “at” the screens in our hands, laps and desks that we constantly do. 

Gwenn Thomas, Rare Earth Magnet II, 2022. Painting on photographic paper, 50,8 x 61 cm. Rare Earth Magnet, 2022. Installation view, EXILE Gallery, Vienna.

The emphasis on this preposition is expressly helpful in approaching Rare Earth Magnet, Gwenn Thomas’ third show at Exile, Vienna, with “inserts” by David Gruber and Alexander Jackson Wyatt and an introductory text signed O. Seraos, quoting and extending the semi-heteronym of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Rare Earth Magnet indeed begins with a window you cannot look through (Metallica II, 2021), installed on the gallery floor: a copper triangular shape embraced by thick sheets of soft pink, glassy resin. This beginning already is the turning inside out of what a window usually is. The frame and the shape themselves are retried and varied upon in “paintings” on unused brown photographic paper, treated with an emulsion so that the images of slanted window-like forms appear in streaks of gold (Rare Earth Magnet I-IV). Representations of light so/as you wish, not simply or straightforwardly painted, but in the first place instances of the rare ore that the show’s title proclaims. 

The title piece is continued upstairs in two sets of thick, hand-blown glass sculptures, encased in metal and brass fittings like giant heavy brooches affixed to a pedestal body (Rare Earth Magnet (blue – transparent – purple – green, 2021). One recognizes the crystalline image of the invitation card, shifting from purple-red to blue inside the gallery: the glass here is mixed with “rare earth magnets”, causing it to take on a cooler shade depending on the type of light that shines on it: in daylight, it’s blue; under fluorescent, the colour changes to a magenta red. Also on the upper floor, a pair of aluminium plates rest directly on the ground (Untitled Constellation I, 2022). Scratched and sanded over heavily, the process reveals inlays of copper nails, paint remnants and is studded with seed pearls decoratively sticking out of the flattened aluminium surface, almost level with Exile’s frosted ceiling window. The work is a sort of transplant from New York (the artist tells me): an incomprehensible piece of her studio-floor’s history, reproduced and transported to Vienna – while the angular window shapes that Thomas produced are like afterimages of an actual window she saw in Lisbon some 10 years ago. [2] Gleaning sideways, her look at the window frame and its perimeter parameters are steadily indirect, always one away from a perceived centre.

Gwenn Thomas, Rare Earth Magnet (blue), 2021, blown glass in steel encasement, 6 x 31 x 23,5 cm. Rare Earth Magnet, 2022. Installation view, EXILE Gallery, Vienna.

If Thomas’s works form the framework that folds the show together, the insertion of Jackson Wyatt and Gruber works in at least two ways: as their placement in the exhibition is also Thomas’s introduction into Vienna’s younger art scene. Alexander Jackson Wyatt’s and David Gruber’s pieces (all works from 2022) are declaredly decentered, moving away, not so much from Thomas, as from themselves. Both Gruber’s Paranoid reader paintings [3] and Jackson Wyatt’s systematically titled collages [4] break into parts. Breaks that, strikingly, become visible through the use of a ‘tape motif’ in each of their works, making it possible to talk of their sticking together, even if its tiny neodymium magnets (the same ore again), that Gwenn Thomas’s paintings are hung by. 

Gruber’s ochre, mostly monochrome canvases with images of sparking bombs and packing tape, stand out for their rupture with the single plane, holding segments of a similarly beige canvas border attached alongside them, “prostheses” in his own words, while the strips of brown tape “inside” are painted virtually without depth, keeping up the painting, as if it were inherently broken. In some strange unexpected way the repair also defuses the grey bombs slowly striking the sombre surfaces, each with a wild yellow spark already ignited. Scrolling over his three canvases they seem there to prepare for further combustion or fragmentation – patiently exhuming a beige-blue cloud of pictorial unmaking, reminiscent (to me) of the bitter humour in Joyce Pensato’s decomposing Mickey Mouse drawings, replete with possibilities of self-destruction.

David Gruber, Paranoid reader #2, 2022, tempera on canvas, 60 x 46,5 cm. Rare Earth Magnet, 2022. Installation view, EXILE Gallery, Vienna.

Jackson Wyatt’s depictions of tape are like memories, roentgen images of papyrus bandages, framed by 45° wooden beams, asymmetrically cut, but perfectly interlocking at the seams. Closeups from street and other photographs he takes, the shapes are printed and folded on canson paper, stuck directly onto the plexiglass with bits of really pink masking tape, revealing the wall behind and the screws they hang by. Breaking the field of illusion that, by contrast, Gruber’s different reals and unreals operate by, the collages never quite seem to fit the box they are attached to. The glass always reflects the viewer. Their frames are spray-painted, blue, faded yellow, orange pink. However the paint never completely covers the frame. Fragilities that at first sight look provisional, are deliberately unfinished business.

The figure of the frame that connects Thomas, Gruber and Jackson Wyatt calls to mind the conceptualisation of painting as a window in the tradition of Alberti – “a window to the world” as the image was traditionally read, or, as Helmut Draxler has proposed, quite the contrary: not a window that opens to reality, but, instead, a set of relations, “a frame that opens a stage provided by perspective.” [5] It is about the way we look at things. 

But what windows do we remember? When do they separate themselves from the view inside them? And if we do not see the glass, but through it, what makes us look at the frame? The strangeness of the liquid surface that we have no memory of, forgetting it is a filter. This is why Thomas’s windows are also studies against linear perspective, look opaque, or look back at us; why Gruber’s paintings have their tears and supplements and Jackson Wyatt pushes the picture frames’ axes – it makes them independent together.

Alexander Jackson Wyatt, shocking upright scaffolds (telepathic surface temperatures) / s.u.s. (t.s.t.), 2022, structural timber, acrylic, pigment print on canson paper, painters tape, plexiglass, matt varnish, 43,5 x 26 x 7 cm. Installation view, EXILE Gallery, Vienna.

Rare Earth Magnet

Gwenn Thomas, with inserts by David Gruber and Alexander Jackson Wyatt

20/10 – 19/11/2022


Elisabethstraße 24

1010, Vienna

[1] Four times: “(she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights)”, “She looked at the window in which the candle flames burnt brighter now that the panes were black,”, “(she was looking at the window)”, “She (...) looked at the windows opposite”

[2] “The mundane shape of a window seen a decade ago in my hometown of Lisbon, has burnt itself into the work of Gwenn Thomas.” O. Seraos’ exhibition text

[3] The term paranoid reader refers to Edie Sedgwick’s ‘Paranoid reading and reparative reading, or, you’re so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you’, chapter 4 of Edie Sedgwick (eds. Michèle Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg and Michael Moon), Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity Duke University Press 2003.

[4] With titles like shocking upright scaffolds (telepathic surface temperatures) / s.u.s. (t.s.t.), windows onto wastelands (personality test invites calculated risks) / w.o.w. (p.t.i.c.r.) or half-convinced hessian beginnings (garden variety parallel universes) / h.c.h.b. (g.v.p.u.) – part of a titling system, itself part of an archive of “extracted” texts Jackson Wyatt has built, where words are replaced by others within the dictionary a number of lines to or from the original, forming a kind of collapsed sentences.

[5] Helmut Draxler, ‘Return of the Proof’, in Avigail Moss and Kerstin Stakemeier (eds.), Painting. The Implicit Horizon. Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht 2011 (symposium November 2010), pp. 131-141, p. 137: “Alberti says that there is a window, but it doesn’t open to reality. Instead, it provides a frame that opens a stage provided by perspective. So the window opens to the stage for the drama set up in painting. Rather than delivering an illusion of the real, painting provides us with a set of relations between frame/tableau, stage/perspective, and drama/genre.”