J. Thomas Wells: The Music of Assemblage
by Jonathan Goodman
J. Thomas Wells practices assemblage as process, finding forgotten objects and piecing them together much as indigenous peoples found esthetic uses for mixed materials—long before modernism began using a similar technique. Wells looks to the street and second-hand shops, to gifts from friends, and to music stores’ ancient, disassembled, and unusable violins and cellos. He is highly aware of the history of his components—their legacy is part of its aura, which also depends on what Wells calls the “mystery” of the part, that is, where it came from before coming into the artist’s hands.
As the artist comments, “Each particle has character developed over its lifetime.” Having gathered his materials, the artist then begins to build works that unify the differing elements into a greater whole. This overall impression is highly original but does not completely let go of the parts’ first energies as usable things. Parts of musical instruments are often used: we recognize the cello, the oboe, and the violin for what they are, even as we appreciate their place in the general configuration of the artwork. This is a process Wells likens to evolution, in which basic life forms are consumed on a ladder leading to the more complex expressions of existence. By juxtaposing and connecting different components, Wells combines the products of nature, such as the bark of a tree, with manmade artifacts.
The objective reality of the pieces dominates the design and the composition process, lending an actual weight to the sculpture. What he calls “road kill”—scraps of industrial waste and metal he finds on the streets—make their way with exacting precision into his playful, graphically absorbing constructions. The relations between part and whole are transparent, but the feeling and experience of the sculptures, based at first on their parts, also turn on an awareness of the entire piece. In some ways, the tie is with the achievements of modernism as well as with the works of aboriginal peoples; Wells admires the art of Louise Nevelson, whose aggregations of lost and forgotten lumber are translated into nearly mythic significance.
Like Nevelson, Wells works to establish a harmonic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. But his works are more delicate and rely more on sound craftsmanship. The artist likens his work to that of an archeologist sifting through discarded remains, to piece together artifacts of a forgotten culture; he sees the esthetics of an object as an imprint of its past.
We can find this happening in the sculptures themselves. Ascension, a cello part embellished with tree bark forming a backbone down its middle, presents four squares of crinkled paper with thin, narrow objects attached upon each; these parts make their way upward and across the cello, which serves as the overall background but also the governing lyrical shape of the sculpture. Like many of Wells’s works of art, Ascension attracts an audience by means of its intelligently placed components, which lead the eye over the entire body of the cello back. The viewer finds it relatively easy to see the work as a visual metaphor for music; used as a ground and as a stabilizing function, the cello back exists both as a symbol for music as well as a structural foundation.
Another work, Horn of Euthenia, belongs to classical mythology: Euthenia was the spirit of prosperity and abundance. Here Wells has made part of a wooden oboe the center of his piece; it is backed by a cloth made of many folds, some of which cross over the wood of the instrument. At the top of the Horn of Euthenia, several thin sticks of wood spring up—they are violin bows that arrived at Wells’s studio without their tips; it as if the sculpture were representing the first growths of spring. The folded fabric feminizes the phallic verticality of the partial instrument. All in all, this is a piece devoted to fecundity, with its allusions both partially hidden and openly transparent.
Scepter of Tyche, another classically inspired sculpture, owes its inspiration to Tyche, who is the embodiment of luck. It consists of a long shaft ending at the top in the part of a cello that keys the strings of the instrument; in the holes where the knobs would be, Wells has placed six violin bows, again without tips, that effectively change the overall gestalt to a form that looks like an African musical instrument. Such a reference may or may not have been the intention of Wells himself, but the reading underscores what we know about these inspired sculptures—namely, that the works function as a springboard of the imagination: they resonate with old and venerable expressions of creativity. It is hard to think of a more imaginative treatment of materials and culture; Wells teaches us how to view the work as more than the sum of its parts. His originality and craft enable him to set a course of genuine inventiveness as an artist, someone who creates objects to think about as well as to experience.
Jonathan Goodman is an art editor and writer based in New York.
He writes for several publications including Art in America, Art on
Paper, Sculpture and Art Asia Pacific.