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Studio visit: Bruce Wilhelm tears holes and makes a mess


Bruce Wilhelm and his painting machine, a device he invented to simplify painting large background fields of stripy washes.

We visited Bruce Wilhelm at his South Philly house/studio on Halloween morning before going to the Phillies parade. Wilhelm is a recent transplant to town from Richmond, VA. The young artist, 27, a Richmond native, is unusual in that he’s making more money on his art than on his day job, from which he just got furloughed due to the economic turndown. But he’s represented by ADA Gallery (he has a show there right now, up until Nov. 30) and since they do five art fairs, he says, it’s like having five solo shows a year.

Wilhelm lives here with his girlfriend Maddy Hoch and their three cats. The cats’ shenanigans entertained us while we were chatting in his living room. We first saw Wilhelm’s work at ADA’s booth at one of the New York art fairs a few years back. More recently, a couple of his videos were at Vox Populi in a group video show curated by Josh Mosley. So we were excited to see he had come to town. Hoch’s family is in the Philly region, which is how they arrived here. The couple graduated with BFAs from VCU in 2004.

Bruce Wilhelm, new painting showing the stripes made with his painting machine.

Wilhelm’s art right now deals with horse imagery appropriated from old master sources like George Stubbs. His paintings – many are on paper affixed to canvas – are notable for holes he’s torn to create weird abstract passages that suggest some voodoo rite has transpired and savaged them. It’s a classic strategy, making a mess of a pristine image. And Wilhelm confessed to being a mess-maker himself, coming from a family of pack-rats and mess makers.

He also said he loves science, and especially YouTube videos about science, which he loves to watch. He’s got a blog about his science love.  And he steered us to his favorite site YouTube, zuke696.

He also plays chess and plays to win—although he’s more interested in watching his opponent sweat than in the game itself.

We got in touch with Bruce through Rob Matthews who had met the artist at a gallery in Richmond before Bruce moved to Philly.

Bruce Wilhelm, new work
Detail of painting by Wilhelm–it’s 3 wood panels with lots of mirror imagery (this shows a part of two panels side by side). The grids and strips inset in the works reminds us of Lee Arnold’s video, Die Farben, in which he inserts moving abstract fields into a still image.

We know your videos …did you start out as a video maker?
I am a painter. Videos are an outgrowth of the paintings. I could continue making videos but… I want to keep that (for later) and make it grow into something else. I use Photoshop and jpeg images. I work on Windows movie maker. I could spend a week on something and find out, wow, this is just useless. I was working for a year (on a video). Now I realize I could have done it quicker.

I’ve been watching Japanese cartoons from 1930s. They’re very strange, and all of a sudden I understand why Pokemon exists …all that odd morphing into things.

Bruce Wilhelm
Round painting on the right was created from a larger, 6′ work, the artist said. That’s Wilhelm’s treatment of The Last Supper on the wall at the left.

You have plans to get an MFA?
VCU was pressuring me (to go for an MFA)…You have to do this (they said)….so I interviewed at Yale. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this and I said that at the interview. They were like What??!! They asked me what I thought…was painting dead? (he didn’t have an answer). But we were chuckling by the end of it. They said, We like your work; we want you to reapply.

You like to play chess? do you play on the computer?
I play in the real world. I like watching the other guy make a move. I like to see my partner sweat. If he looks happy, I start sweating. My little brother works in robotics/AI. He should be a great chess player. I beat him a couple times in a row….

IMG_8362 Last Supper
Bruce Wilhelm, The Last Supper. It’s made of layers of paper with a stratified hole in the middle.

So you like the head game?
I’m addicted to games.

Did you play Nintendo growing up?
The first simple games, yes. But I didn’t keep it up. I used to watch people play a lot…(so I know the games without actually playing them). It’s vicarious. It’s like when you’re watching someone make a touchdown and in your mind you’re the one making the touchdown.

There’s a video of a monkey eating a peanut and his head is connected to electrodes and you see his brain light up. Then the monkey watches a video of a monkey eating a peanut and his brain lights up…

Bruce Wilhelm, a very recent painting. There’s a lot of collage here–those abstract shapes are made of many separtate cut parts.

It’s on youTube. It may not be real science…What’s the next painting?
It’s kind of sculptural. My next project involves frames. …My mom taught crafts one summer…The neighborhood kids came to our house and we tie died and paper mache’d, and I was off. She’s creative. She does great doodles in the phone book. I think three dimensionally. I started with 3-D stuff. Painting came later.

Bruce Wilhelm
This is an experimental shaped work we saw in the studio. The mini diorama illustrates how three-dimensionally the artist thinks.

When did you start painting?
I started painting in my first year of high school. When I was a teenager I got into lots of different things and found myself stuck in the house for long periods of time (grounded). So I did a lot of painting then. The ultimate way of getting back at grounding you is enjoying it!

What did they your parents think of art as a career?
My father was an accountant. He’s chief financial officer of a company now. and my mother does accounting work now. When I was a child and it looked like I was going into art, they said, So, basically, you’re choosing not to make money.

Do you have a day job, or do you make it on art alone?
I’m working for a company called Humankind Design, run by two women, Kate and Jill. They do proposals for huge sculptures and they do kitchen countertops. Before, I worked constuction in Richmond, though after a while you get construction hands. I’d pick up a wallet and then drop it. It makes your hands kind of numb. I’ve never noticed it affected my paintings.

Bruce Wilhelm, another new work with the background made using the painting machine (top photo).

I only made $400 from Humankind Design. The rest I make from art. ADA does the art fairs, so I get the equivalent of five mini-shows a year. But it gets kind of confusing. I have ideas, but I have to finish things quick for ADA for the art fairs.

That sounds like what happens to Rob Matthews for Gallery Joe. He’s always in production. Do you have any plans for showing locally in Philadelphia?
Today I’m handing in my application to Vox Populi. I met Josh Rickards and a couple of other people from there.

I don’t really have a friend yet. I just made one. We go play frisbee golf together, and he’s from Richmond. He’s an artist. He was in the same class, same department but I didn’t know him there. [He needed a friend to go with to First Fridays].

When I moved to Champagne (IL) for my girlfriend of the time, I couldn’t make friends, so I moved back to Richmond. So I know if I want to stay in Philadelphia, I need to solve basic things like making friends.

Do you listen to music when you work?
That’s how I tell if it’s a good day versus a bad day. On a good day, I forget the music’s on. On a really bad day–I forget the music is on. I listen to Pandora. You can make your own radio station.

Bruce Wilhelm and Libby looking at his art collection
Bruce and Libby looking at some of his art collection on the wall between first and second floor.

I’ve made so many paintings and ruined so many paintings, I don’t care any more if I ruin a painting. This year, I ruined 20. I just throw it out. I have this powdered graphite. Every time I use it, I ruin things. It gets in the paper and becomes so dark. It’s beautiful when you rub it in, but I just haven’t been able to take advantage of it at all.

How do you get so much done?
I have a guy who comes to help [he does outlines for Bruce from projections.] Or he does a painting, and I’ll cut holes in it. I never did this before. I told him, Make your best painting in black and white in a week then I’m going to cut holes in it.

How did you find him?
I put an ad on Craig’s list. It wasn’t for a lot of money, but a bunch of people applied. I elminated some of them by the number of times they mentioned money.

Have you ever worked with anyone before?
I had some extra money, so I wondered, what can I do to reinvest in the art work? I have too much work to do.

What’s his name?
Andrew Seagraves. He just graduated from some Catholic school in Connecticut. He’s a graphic designer. He played football. He’s 6 foot 3 and in uniform he weighs 300 pounds. We go to lunch and he orders like three lunches.

You have so many horse images. Do you love horses?
I don’t really like horses at all. They’re too powerful and stupid at the same time. I worked at a friend’s mom’s farm shovelling hay. A horse can bite you when you’re trying to work.

Bruce Wilhelm, new painting.

So why horses?
The Richmond museum (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) has that horse painting collection. The Paul Mellon Collection–it’s their best collection of art work. I go there a lot. I thought, this is how you learn. You paint somebody else’s paintings! I love the quote ….inventing something is brilliant and stealing it is genius….but don’t know if I believe it.

I wound up becoming interested in those paintings. They are very different from what I did. Things are very slow in these paintings, as if they are trying to avoid some event in the future. They all have clouds, and an expectation of something dark. That’s not what I’m giving back.

Bruce Wilhelm
In the studio, a small Last Supper on the wall.

What are you giving back?
They are more personal. The ones in the museum have one or two people, peaceful, a building and a horse and a domesticated animal. [He starts to talk about Komar and Melamid’s America’s most wanted painting research in which the paintings people say they want contain two wild animals, a person, a landscape and some trees].

Someone views that, and it’s comfortable for them. So I’m doing something less comfortable. I add odd lyrics or pieces of information that don’t exactly make sense but reflect the way I think about the world. That information becomes confusing and nonsensical.

Bruce Wilhelm showing one of his older works
Wilhelm showing a painting from the series that came before the horses. It’s more abstract and made with spray paint stencils the artist made himself.

When I try to understand the world, I end up making mistakes. I oversimplify and follow the wrong paths. My work is a visual expression of that feeling. I get ideas, and start writing them down. Then I look at my notes and think, this is all crap.

What else is new?
I just applied for a Pollock-Krasner Grant.

Painting Wilhelm did based on American colonial painter Ammi Phillips' Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog.
Painting Wilhelm did based on American colonial painter Ammi Phillips’ Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog.

[Suddenly he starts talking about Philadelphia’s murals]. The murals. I never see people talking about them ever. I like the one at Broad and Spring Garden [Meg Saligman’s mural, Common Threads]. But those cars [the slow car crash by Jonathan Schipper that Paige West of the West Collection is trying to put up in Philadelphia], Once people figure out that they are looking at the incredibly slow crashing of cars, they can’t help thinking about what it means. It would be nice to have it in some plaza, but someone could fall asleep in it and six days later, they’re crushed. Someone woke them and they went back to sleep, aaah, it’s so slow, I’ve got another hour…