Light & Dark: The Fantastic World of Werner Wildner
Through Dec. 17
Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, 23rd and West End avenues
For information, call 322-0605
The current exhibition at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, “Light & Dark: The Fantastic World of Werner Wildner,” brings back to the limelight a man whose career faded as his notoriety grew over the last two decades. Once the darling of the Nashville art community, and on his way to a national reputation, Werner Wildner has long since ceased to produce the fanciful, gorgeously executed works that earned him so many accolades.
“Light & Dark” includes 43 works by Wildner. Fourteen belong to Vanderbilt, with the rest borrowed from private and public collections around Nashville. Whether you are familiar with Wildner or not, you owe it to yourself to check out this show. You won’t find any other artist creating this kind of medieval surrealism with such mastery of painterly technique. Even when the images are horrific, the detailed and richly colored paintings come across as lyrical.
The artist to whom Wildner is most often compared is Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th-century Dutchman who painted the twilight of the Middle Ages. Wildner has even been known to joke that he is the 20th-century incarnation of Bosch. In the Vanderbilt show are several fine examples of this similarity, including a detailed drawing of Deatha skeleton, mostly, but in places still covered in fleshriding through a forest populated with lurking figures. Elsewhere there are satyrs and fauns, demons, a human-headed bull, a stabbed pig, an evil Mother Goose, even a house that is also a person and a landscape. This is the perfect Halloween art show.
Wildner even provides an overt homage, “HieronymusSelf-Portrait,” a small portrait of a thoughtful-looking elderly man gazing at the viewer. Though the subtitle suggests that there is something of Wildner in the work, the artist insists he was simply painting a portrait of Boschthe sketch for it is obviously Bosch’s own charcoal self-portrait from the early 16th century. Wildner nicely tops his predecessor here: Contrary to his own usual crazy style, Bosch sketched a simple, modest self-portrait. But Wildner dresses the artist much better, gives him a macabre hat, and places a demonic-looking lizard on his shoulder.
Bosch, too, was fond of those symbols of the dark side of nature that preoccupy Wildner and populate the Vanderbilt showowls. Bosch, however, usually relegated the birds to small roles, such as peering from a conjuror’s basket. Wildner gives them center stage. The most eye-catching work in the Vanderbilt show is a larger-than-life-size owl. Perched on a stone wall against a rich black background, it stares out at the viewer, looking no less dignified and wise for the gorgeous red stovepipe hat it wears. Its feathers are so lusciously painted, it’s a pleasure just to stand before them and contemplate the gradations of their shading and remind yourself that this vision was created by a human eye and brain and hand.
Distant and personal
From his reclusive life and medieval paintings, one would expect to find Werner Wildner living in something like the hut that Merlin occupied in The Sword in the Stone. Instead, he lives in one end of an aging, dilapidated house in a downwardly mobile neighborhood off Charlotte Pike. On the day I visited him, a dead car adorned the yard, and a pair of ancient shoes were sunning like old dogs on the porch.
The 74-year-old Wildner’s first words at the door are, “I’m glad the shoes didn’t scare you off. I had to air them out.” He’s preparing his wardrobe for the Vanderbilt reception on Thursday, Oct. 28, although he won’t guarantee that he’ll show up. He talks constantly but refuses to speak on tape or otherwise answer for quotation. He says he has nothing useful to say.
The house is dirty and the furnishings decrepit. One of the themes in the decor is appropriate to Wildner’s work: A skeleton serves as the pull on the window shade cord, and a tiny skull peers over a photocopy of one of Wildner’s own drawings. But a radio tuned to WAMB happily croons old jazz. Now and then Wildner notices a tune, points to the radio, identifies the singer or the song’s date or a movie it was in, and returns to the conversation.
Wildner is a gracious host. He smokes constantly, but only near the window. He drinks beer, but provides ginger ale for his guest. A couple of times, he apologizes for interrupting and explains that he doesn’t see many people. Soon a friend shows up with a pile of Wildner’s drawings. All are well-executed, of course, because he is simply a fine draftsman. But they are mostly uninspired, sometimes cartoonish takes on the lighter side of his Northern European subject matterdwarfs, for example. There are no important paintings or drawings in the house. Wildner says local collectors have bought everything. Many people in the Nashville art community complain that Wildner’s “patrons” have exploited a destitute man.
Although Wildner recently subscribed to ArtNews, he doesn’t closely follow either the national or the Nashville art scene. But he knows enough to say that he respects Carol Stein (owner of Cumberland Gallery), or that the kind of work he doesn’t care for is exemplified by Adrienne Outlaw’s installation pieces. He is quick to add that there’s nothing wrong with that sort of work; it just doesn’t appeal to him. He smiles his quick, nervous little smile. “I like painting. I like drawing.”
Four years ago, Alan Bostick published a long, melodramatic article about Wildner, emphasizing the artist’s decline from glitz to squalor. There is no question that Wildner lives in poverty and drinks a lot, but his reputation as a has-been only a step above Skid Row may be misleading. His conversational style is distracted, bouncing from one topic to the next. However, only a few minutes’ chat reveals a knowledgeable and clever man. When the visiting friend says, “By the way, Vern, somebody asked me if you were certifiably insane,” Wildner looks up and half-grins. “What did you tell him?” he asks. The woman just laughs.
It is difficult to discern how much the loss of the urge to create troubles Wildner nowadays. Sitting at his scarred old drawing board, smoking and drinking, making jokes, he seems almost content. But the tragedy of lost talent is inescapable. The irony in the room is as strong as the cigarette smoke when Wildner discusses his early work while “As Time Goes By” plays in the background. He hears the tune if not the irony and points to the radio. “Casablanca! 1942!”
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