From edition

Paul Youngquist, Review of Being There: An Introduction to the Work of Joe Wilson

Being There: An Introduction to the Work of Joe Wilson (Aghabullogue: Occasional Press, 2006)

The Evidence of Things Seen
Joe Wilson walks. When he walks he notices things. Noticing things is not so easy as it sounds, even though everybody does it all the time. It’s the way you notice things that matters.   The way Joe Wilson notices things has allowed him to produce a rich, strange body of work that deserves more notice and esteem than the worn-out word “art” can give. Wilson is a visual artist, but with a difference. He lives and works in Ireland, but isn’t Irish by birth. He draws and photographs and paints, but not to make art, not exactly. His work produces evidence of things he’s noticed—but not because he has noticed them. Wilson the visual artist is less a person than a device, one carefully calibrated to register just this pattern, just that movement—and mark it down. Explaining how he came notice things this way, he says quite simply, “I began to look at the landscape in terms of the evidence it contains of what was happening in it and to it” (51). Not beauty or truth, not critique or vision. Just evidence. That’s what Wilson’s work invites you to notice. Being There, as its subtitle portends, lets you see things that, but for Wilson’s evidence, you never would.
Things like sheds on small allotments of property, the frayed and muddied fabric of a farmer’s overcoat, patterns of force in a river’s flow, sweeping rural vistas and small patches of garden gnarl. Such things are meaningful neither for being numinous nor for being expressed. In fact, they’re not meaningful at all. But they are there, the way information is there for whatever instruments can be designed to receive it. Perception, to invoke Wilson, resembles a mechanism built to measure only certain effects, or blotting paper made to absorb some liquids and not others. Information arises in this conjunction of instruments and things. That’s how art happens too. Artists calibrate their instruments by learning to notice things. The information they gather is their art.   On this account, art occurs with the functional precision of a Geiger counter, which is not to say that it’s mechanical or empty. On the contrary, it’s the best evidence of things seen because unlike electron detection art is active. It produces moving information. Here’s Wilson again: “artists attempt to put elegant proposals of perception together for themselves and for others” (12). Think of Wilson’s art, then, as an occasion for noticing things, proposals of perception that give you, their viewer, an opportunity to see.
You don’t look through Wilson’s work to the world it represents. You see things in it that you haven’t seen before, patterns mostly, collisions of force that configure little worlds or corrugate whole landscapes. A garden becomes a system of swirls, a tractor sculpts texture and shade, a river turns water into knots, or a landscape bulges and warps, burgeoning beyond the canvas that can’t contain it. The things you see in these elegant proposals are things neither you nor the artist puts there. But they are there all the same, patterns of force that but for Wilson’s art would go unmarked. Being There gives you the chance to notice them, to drift among Wilson’s images and see a world forever seething.
The book tells a story too, the story of how Wilson came to notice things in his artful way. Born near Manchester in 1947 to a “long line of cotton mill workers,” he became interested in art early. But he was interested in science too, doing math and physics as well as art at “A” level in school. He attended Manchester Art School in the mid-sixties, where he became hooked on systems art in circumstances that were, in his words, “experimental, accumulative, rigorous, critical and, above all, inclusive” (51). Wilson avoided the ceremonial hermeticism of the artsy crowd. He made mechanical and electrical devices instead that required human interaction: puzzles for hands, labyrinths for feet. Upon graduating he acquired two great passions: walking and archeology. They turned out to go together nicely. Walking the moors around Manchester Wilson began to notice natural systems in the landscape. He built more devices, now to measure information about those systems. Archeology led him to ponder the way science produces information through an active process of collective understanding. He began photographing archeological sites with an eye to the patterns of information they contained. When it occurred to him that what was missing from this enterprise was a qualitative valence, he started to think of himself as a kind of filter applied to the information he was interested in recording. The eye of science meets the I of art. Wilson’s work grows out of their alliance.
His ideas came together when he moved to Ireland in 1979 to begin teaching at the Limerick School of Design. Teaching aught him to think and speak clearly about his art and to listen to students’ reactions. He spent a couple of years taking photographs on a farm owned by a friend of his, Tom Brouder, stark photographs in black and white that distill filigrees from the blankest details. In time, with a move to County Wicklow and the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, he began again to draw: patches of garden, stretches of hillside, a 180 degree panorama of the east-west ridge of Achill Island. Then came painting. His pigment was the color of mud—and consistency of it too. He slathered it thick on flat surfaces cobbled together from planks, canvas, or both. He built ridges of paint to register the forces heaving beneath a landscape. His paintings churn with heavy energy, whorls of suspended tension. They too are elegant proposals in which the viewer notices new things. Maybe that’s what makes Wilson’s art so forceful: its proposals are occasions for creativity, the simple, stark creativity of seeing what’s there.
That’s the opportunity this arresting book provides too. It’s not a book in a conventional sense, not even an art book. It’s a collation of perspectives. These include an abundance of Wilson’s images spanning the length of his career, as well as a variety of different reactions to the information those images record. Wilson himself is the featured tutor of his practice. And extended interview with the artist an designer David Lilburn conveys an intimate sense of how Wilson sees things and how he talks about them. For an artist interested in suppressing the subjective side of conventional creation, Wilson comes surprisingly alive as thinker and theorist—the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind spotting a round or two. He speaks in exclamations and reminisces in anecdotes—about his friends and his colleagues and his students and his daughters. You get the feeling that this oblique, private vitality also finds its way into his proposals of perception, even if you can’t say quite how.
Being There includes other perspectives too. It opens with “Markings,” a poem by Sheamus Heaney from his collection, Seeing Things, followed by a brief forward by the printmaker James O’Nolan. It includes a short essay on Wilson’s work by Aiden Dunn, art critic for the Irish Times. It draws to a finish with a chronology of Wilson’s life in his own voice and closes with three extracts from his published essays. Like Wilson’s work, this book undertakes and active process of collective understanding, filtered by the cunning device that is Wilson’s remarkable way of noticing things. “Learning to notice is not something which comes naturally,” he says in his essay “Tuning the Visual Geiger Counter.” Being There attests to that. It’s lovingly designed and beautifully produced. Occasional Press has crafted an homage to Joe Wilson that is as artful and intelligent as his work. Reproducing his photographs, drawings, and paintings, in transfixing detail, Being There urges you to
notice them. It teaches you t
o see. In this it matches Wilson’s own devotion to things seen. Being There is more than an introduction to Wilson’s work. It is an archeology of way of noticing things.

Paul Youngquist is Professor in the Department of English at Penn State University.

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