2804-July/August 2004

more feature articles:

Matthew Ritchieās Dream Universe
By Alix Ohlin


The complex foolishness of Miamiās Westen Charles

By Joel Weinstein

On the floor of Westen Charlesā studio sits a new work-in-progress, looking like a cockamamie, wildly kitschy small household appointment. Despite having the general contours of a table lamp, its utility is obviously nil, like a figurine or a bowling trophy, some awful tchotchke a dowager might scrounge from one of Miamiās numerous modern furniture and junk emporiums. It consists of an inverted leopard-skin lampshade sticking out of the splayed upper torso of a Labrador retriever stuffed toy, and when you peer into the funnel of the lampshade a hairy little gnu stares back, wading in pink slather. Gay and twee in the way that 1955 looks from the year 2004, the piece also has the air of a wounded rodent, a bit of sex-maddened attack dog.

Westen Charles, Bulldog, 2004, mixed media, 20 by 24 by 16 inches, (courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery).

This description also suits the more nettlesome side of Charlesā work, an oeuvre that ranges from queasy juxtapositions of woman and beast to silly but ultimately satisfying investigations into the physics of dryer lint. However off-kilter it gets, though, the smart-ass discourse carries a note of soulful melancholy because it so often resurrects discarded, forgotten things. Charles points out how the messy, labial rosiness of his new sculpture makes you want to both stare and avert your eyes, ćlike a little boy looking up a womanās skirt,ä he says.

Westen Charles, Parquet & Lingerie, 2003, parquet and thong underwear (courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery).


Charles takes pride in his contrarian, anti-market and, in some cases, downright off-putting objects and paintings. He is one of the few young Miami artists who works consistently against the careerist grain, though he has carved out a modestly prosperous niche for himself. This success probably has to do with his curious ideas, his taste for nostalgically pleasing colors and his really good hands and attention to detail, which, along with a winningly boyish reserve, have gotten attention from collectors and admiration, not at all grudging, from his artist pals.

A Miami boy through and through, Charles lives and works in the dilapidated house his grandfather built on Biscayne Bay during the early 1950s. Although the neighborhood is imposing in the suburban quickie way of recent Miami home construction, Charles is preparing the sprawling, neglected homestead for sale, and it is a rather dusty affair, with walls stripped down to brick, plywood nailed over doorways, and an empty swimming pool strewn with debris and surrounded by weeds and rusting lawn furniture.

Westen Charles, Bamboo Cube, 2004, resin and bamboo, 19 by 19 by 19 inches (photo courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery).

Amidst the disarray, other new works are taking shape, like Bamboo Cube, a mint-green resin cube encasing a clutch of cut bamboo that has been left its natural colors, a tropical play of yellows and browns. The cube, not much bigger than a footstool, is nearly finished, requiring only a coat of clear polyurethane to bring out the shine of plastic and wood. The bundle of sticks makes a loose cylinder within the perfect cube, and where the two forms intersect the bamboo has been cut laterally, while top and bottom show the wood in circular cross-sections. The effect is stunning and painterly; the abundantly porous bamboo swimming like choreographed eels in a pretend shining sea.

Westen Charles, (Lipstick & Doggy Dick) #8, 2002, oil on paper, 12 by 16 inches (photo courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery)..


Westen Charles, (Lipstick & Doggy Dick) #5, 2002, oil on paper, 12 by 16 inches (photo courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery).

Charles remarks that he likes how the resin fills and defines the spaces in and around the bamboo, and his words reveal a conceptual suppleness behind this highly finished and well-formed form. Since graduating from the University of Miamiās art program in 1998, his projects have involved the aforementioned lint balls plus the dryer that made them and a live pig occupying a pen in a gallery. He has a series of exquisite, consummately smutty small diptychs using the avid faces of porn magazine models paired with equally expectant mugs of dogs, who, he says, have a whole genre of fan magazines all their own. The effect varies from piece to piece, but it is, overall, dubious, vulgar fun.

Westen Charles, Retirement (detail), 2000, modified bowling balls, (courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery).


For a time, the bowling ball was Charlesā favorite material, an affinity he developed after he made a coffin on a whim and was trying to decide how to fill it. Heād been aimlessly collecting those bright, marbled emblems of the sporting working class, and he placed a few balls in the coffin until realizing that if they were squared off he could fit a lot more. In one of his typically improvisational leaps, Charles began applying faux wood finishes to the bowling ballsā newly flat surfaces, leaving intact the rounded area with the finger holes and the engraved names of ballsā last owners. It is doubtful that even an astute critic could determine whether these stele-like forms are wry put-downs, hokey memorials or something else altogether.

Private collectors are not the only ones in south Florida drawn to Charlesā prankish ways. The Miami Art Museum has purchased his Foolās Gold, wherein the coffin now sits atop a kind of outsized wooden couch÷a resting place for a resting place÷and contains not bowling balls but a heap of bowling trophies, those gilded testaments to wasting time. Two years ago, the South Florida Cultural Consortium gave Charles one of its prestigious regional awards. Could the provocateur who counts Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy as influences and whose college projects included interactive videos as mean-spirited as their names÷Rocket Ass and Nice Having Ya÷be turning into a social pillar?

Westen Charles, Foolās Gold, 2000, mixed media, 48 by 100 by 42 inches (collection Miami Art Museum).

In fact, for a long while Charles has invested considerable energy in the community at large. He teaches at New World School of the Arts, a small but highly regarded art college in the stateās public education system. Several years ago he convinced two schoolmates from his undergraduate days at Pratt, Elizabeth Withstandley and the one-named Cooper, to come to Miami to help him launch Locust Projects, a lean but often electrifying alternative exhibition space that he still co-directs with Art Papers Contributing Editor Gean Moreno. These roles seem to satisfy Charles as much as that of solitary creator of unusual objects. He has been in Miami for most of his life and heās alert to how the hothouse atmosphere of Art Basel and the burgeoning gallery scene is getting a little fevered, a little wild. He sees both good and bad in the changes÷the floodtide of spaces, he believes, can only provide opportunities for the upcoming generation of artists, in which, as a teacher watching closely, he has great faith. But this very prosperity attracts the high-powered growth that historically drives away poor artists.

Toney development eventually may have fateful consequences for Locust Projects and the neighborhoodās other low-end exhibition spaces, forcing a move or some other dislocation. But as Charles might say, ćNot to worry.ä Even if one day he suffers setbacks as a gallery director, he certainly will find else something in it as an artist who improvises on whatās at hand, a man who loves a good paradox.

Recent work by Westen Charles is in ćLock, Stock and Barrel,ä a group show at Miamiās Fredric Snitzer Gallery until June 30.

JOEL WEINSTEIN writes regularly from Miami. His profile of Beatriz Monteavaro appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of ART PAPERS.


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