Cascades of debris, a mélange of building materials and personal effects tumble through the air and pile up in heaps. These are scenes of destruction; the frenzy of the instant of wreckage as well as the stillness of the moment that immediately follows. Duncan Wylie’s latest series of paintings depict the manmade obliteration of residential architecture. With the blows of force dealt by the bulldozer, matter and atmosphere merge in a whirring of space. In some of the paintings, where the bulldozing appears to have recently ended, the backgrounds compensate by being in a state of turmoil. These are true action paintings. Only the action does not end with the completion of the piece. In Wylie’s work, the vigor of technique and subject matter collide to create suspended scenes of perpetual unmaking.
Wylie, whose previous work featured technically meticulous kaleidoscopic paintings of architecture, began this series of demolition paintings after a trip to the Middle East in 2005 at a time when houses were being razed in Gaza. This destruction was reminiscent of events happening simultaneously in Wylie’s native Zimbabwe. In the name of “Operation Drive Out Trash,” over a million people were left homeless when government bulldozers crushed domestic neighborhoods. The subsequent series of paintings present a dual act of destruction in which both the architectural structure as well as the painterly technique are under assault. Some paintings are created by superimposing the image of demolition onto an interior scene of Wylie’s childhood home in Zimbabwe, which is rendered in swift strokes of bright, sometimes fluorescent, colors. While mostly obscured by the top layer, the underlying image serves to destabilize a habitable sense of space. These paintings seem to almost self-destruct as the unseen private space of everyday life is annihilated by violent attacks on the architectural exterior.
Wylie’s images play out a conflictual match between painting and photography. The suspension of the moment of collapse, when tiles, bricks, and mortar are strung in the air, is a photographic moment that the painterly technique, no matter how swift, is unable to capture. Some sections of the paintings – the claw of a bulldozer, a tree or a house in the background – are so precisely rendered that they could fool the mind as snapshots of the real thing. But this is where painting takes over: each image is a composite of several sites of demolition sutured together by the brush. In the midst of the near-photographic chaos an unmotivated stroke of paint is often superimposed, forcing the scene to recede away from the viewer. And in several images, sweeping strokes of white make their way from the edges inward as the painter takes on the role of the bulldozer.
Paris, Sofia (Harare), one painting in the show, was executed in France, composed of images taken in Bulgaria, and imagined by the painter to depict the destruction of homes in Zimbabwe. In Gaza, as well as in Zimbabwe, the leveling of housing is undertaken by authorities that often prohibit photography of these events. When denied the possibility of first-hand witnessing and documentation, painting becomes capable of doing what no photograph could: the depiction of one crumbling building is capable of housing a collective image of all that suffered a similar fate.