By Lawrence Rinder
Wiggin Village is the newest collaborative work by Providence-based artists Jim Drain and Ara Peterson. Drain and Peterson began working together nearly ten years ago when they were undergraduates at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Peterson’s interest in ‘demented assemblage’ and abstract film combined with Drain’s comic sensibility and enjoyment of craft to create a powerful, hybrid practice. Both became members of Forcefield, a group of artists that also included Mat Brinkman and Leif Goldberg and which was known for high-energy music as well as for visually intense videos, sculptures, and installations. Forcefield was based at the legendary Fort Thunder, a large industrial loft in Providence that, between 1995 and 2002, was home to some of the most innovative art and music made in America in the 1990s. The work created there--in a wide range of media--is characterized by psychedelic imagery, primal themes, and a raw, hand-made aesthetic.
Wiggin Village expands on many of Drain’s and Peterson’s earlier concerns while introducing new techniques, forms, and themes. Both artists have for years been interested in the evocative nature of everyday, handmade materials. Their work is characterized by time-consuming processes that result in physically compelling and optically rich forms which often incorporate ‘craft-like’ components such as beads, yarn, or clay. Drain, whose early work was largely in sculpture and comics, began to knit shrouds—often incorporating found afghans-- or his fellow Forcefield band members in 2000. In Wiggin Village, these knit shrouds have come to cover a host of diverse abstract personages. Meanwhile, Peterson’s painstaking creation of abstract videos and films using sections of multi-colored modelling clay is further developed in Wiggin Village through work that extends this bizarre 2-D effect into an even more peculiar three-dimensional form.
In Wiggin Village, there is a particular emphasis on architecture, or as Drain and Peterson describe it, a ‘cartoon architecture.’ Although this approach may be new to their installation work, it was prefigured in the remarkable interior design of Fort Thunder, where each resident designed and created their own sleeping area, often to quite fantastical ends. Wiggin Village itself fills The Moore Space with various architectural motifs including platforms, arches, gateways, and turrets, transforming an ordinary former commercial loft into a childlike wonderland. The artists have pointed to a combination of extravagance and minimal pattern that evokes qualities of Islamic architecture and surface decoration. The scenographic dimension of Wiggin Village—and of Fort Thunder itself--was inspired, in part, by the legendary work of Gary Panter, an illustrator and comic artist who is best known as the designer of the sets for the TV series Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Panter’s free-spirited imagery and forms which veered between cheerful innocence and dystopian revolt anticipates the range of approaches—“from the eye-fuck to the organic”--in Drain and Peterson’s work. By giving the viewers’ the ability to move through and personalize their experience of this ‘comic architecture,’ Drain and Peterson bring to life the now-common experience of navigating through the fantasy worlds of computer-video games.
Amongst the rococo concatenation of Wiggin Village, the artists have placed discrete works that become the inhabitants and incidents of this strange community. These works include Peterson’s video projections and abstract beaded abstract forms, and Drain’s totem-like objects covered with knitted shrouds. While occurring in what might seem like a very otherworldly space, the inspiration for many of these works lies in the real world of people, plants, and animals. Notes on their sketches for the works suggest their naturalistic origin: Graveyard, Fountain, Bumps, Treetops. Other notes point towards more fantastical identities: Piggy Pony, Diamond Garden, Sweet Surrender, Arch Enemy, Pure Evil. One note, “maybe persons,” suggests the virtually anthropormorphic quality of nearly all of their work. There is a sense that every piece, whether physically figure-like or utterly abstract, is a manifestation of some independent, often un-nameable sentient force.
Like Third Annual Rogga Bogga, Wiggin Village possesses a subliminal narrative element. However, whereas the shrouded beings in the Whitney installation clearly formed a kind of surrogate audience attending the screening of one of Peterson’s abstract films, the narrative thread of Wiggin Village is less overt or clearly identifiable. What is clear is that each form or image leads to another in a chain of relations that seems based as much on rhymes of color and shape as on any kind of storyline. In the artists’ words, Wiggin Village is “an arrangement where a variable speed happens, paced by scale, patterning, and color.” Arguably, this approach to linear progression, tempered by the formal differences among sequential incidents, echoes the graphic qualities of Fort Thunder comics. The comic work that emerged from this scene was characterized by the expressive qualities of hand-drawn lines, suggestions of narrative the emerged from subtle transformations of form, and by an attention to the overall—often highly congested—appearance of the page.
Abstraction has been present in Drain and Peterson’s work for some time, most recently in their extraordinary video kaleidoscope and accompanying sculptural spheres. In Wiggin Village, several elements extend their investigation into the peculiar resonance and optical power of pattern and shape. Again, notes to their preliminary sketches provide clues into their way of seeing these objects: Donut Forms, Cone Forms, Sphere Forms, Wiggle Forms. In a statement written as the show was in development, the artists’ anticipate that, “The forms themselves will have a grace of labor, a clunky elegance and a clean economy of materials.” Interestingly, both Drain and Peterson seem to be re-engaging with some of the formalist concerns they first encountered—and initially rejected—at RISD, where artists such as Tony Cragg and Martin Puryear were celebrated by the faculty.
In Wiggin Village, Drain and Peterson attempt a delicate balancing act: it is a collaboration in which each of these very idiosyncratic artist’s work is distinct and identifiable. Their shared fascination with the resonance of form and consciousness, with the tension between dimensions of representation, and with the subliminal suggestion of narrative allow them to work side by side in creating a carnivalesque riot of the imagination that is, at the same time, a thoughtful and integrated whole.