A Wyeth who casts his own shadow

The Brandywine Museum of Art presents Jamie Wyeth: Unsettled

5 minute read
Unsettling oil painting of a skinny boy in shorts, shirt, tie & black cape pointing down toward his wooden hand-lettered sign

Jamie Wyeth: Unsettled surprises, delights, intrigues, and (yes) often unsettles, as its evocative title promises. This striking exhibition at the Brandywine Museum of Art features an expansive and slightly labyrinthine installation of 60 works by the Chadds Ford artist. At every turning, there is something that stops you—sometimes cold, sometimes breathless. But you can’t look away, pulled ever deeper into the exhibition and Wyeth’s singular imagination by his use of color, his boldness and audacity, and by the magnetism spilling off the walls.

In the third-floor entrance hall is a huge mural reproduction of Farm Talk (2016), its grinning animal skulls initiating all comers to the exhibition’s theme. The first thing you see on entering the gallery isn’t one of Wyeth’s works at all. It’s a French automaton (ca. 1880) called Bob et son Cochon Savant (Bob and his Smart Pig), a 55-inch-tall masterpiece of macabre movement and one of only four extant. Wyeth has a well-documented collection of oddities like this (Unsettled also features some of his taxidermy specimens), and the automaton’s mechanical but frighteningly lifelike maneuvers are highlighted in a film that plays in tandem. Nothing could more appropriately set the stage for what you are about to view.

Chills, menace, and Maine

The haunting exhibition is beautifully curated by Amanda C. Burdan, who has divided Wyeth’s works into three major sections: Strangers and Specters, The Natural and Supernatural Worlds, and Haunted Places and Disturbing Spaces. Even those section titles are chilling.

In his riveting figurative work, people are often subjected to Wyeth’s gimlet-eyed, deeply probing portraiture, like The Faune (1977/2002), a portrait of Rudolf Nureyev. The legendary dancer is often seen wearing a costume from one of his iconic ballet roles, but here the artist eerily transformed his subject into the mythological creature he so often portrayed.

Things lifted from everyday life seem imbued with menace. Buzz Saw (1969) is a large, foregrounded image of a circular saw blade. The image is daunting, the title equally so. Animals are anthropomorphized in myriad ways. One of the most arresting is Portrait of Lady, Study #1 (1968), depicting a fluffy sheep of that name in whose black face gleam terrifyingly pale eyes. And there are several skeletal graphite drawings from his Morgue Sketchbook (1965-66) which are just exactly what the title says.

A man stands on a sunny porch with a dramatic shadow, clad in protective gear, next to a caged falcon & antlered deer skulls
Detail of Jamie Wyeth’s ‘Bean Boots’, 1985, oil on panel. 37 x 50 in. Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Gift of the Cawley Family, 2001.29.1 © Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Though many of the works have a Brandywine Valley pedigree, there are also works set in Maine, Wyeth’s other favored locale. From a 2020 group of paintings come two numbered works in a Suite of Untoward Occurrences on Monhegan Island: Portrait of a Moon Curser (Fifteenth), a work inspired by island piracy, and the spectral Snow Owl (Fourteenth). And then there’s Dead Cat Museum Monhegan Island (1999), where a disconcertingly fetching portrait of a clever young entrepreneur is melded with the placard for his morbid (and real) attraction.

There are two works on view from Wyeth’s arresting Screen Door series, assemblages with an actual screen door attached to a painting, inviting the viewer just a little further into something rich and strange. Apples: Fifth in the Screen Door Sequence (2021) is a portrait of his grandfather N.C. Wyeth gathering apples in an ethereal, mystical environment. First in the Screen Door Sequence (2015) is a chilling portrait of a ghostly pale Andy Warhol and his dog Archie.

Disentangling Jamie

Unsettled states quite boldly that “among the goals of this examination of Wyeth’s work is the intentional disentanglement of his work from that of other family members.” His paintings are often viewed in the context of his father (Andrew) or grandfather (N.C. Wyeth), but here they radiate his unique techniques and a startlingly personal vision.

Five years in the making, this major exhibition is a monumental look at an artist who has worked extensively, and lifelong, traveling his iconoclastic path. Though there are works from the 1960s right up to the present, Unsettled is not intended as a retrospective. It’s a compelling look at an artist who stands squarely in a world of his own creation.

Unsettled is accompanied by an expansive illustrated catalogue with an exhibition checklist (including details of every work in the exhibition) and a compelling lead essay by Burdan, who notes that Wyeth has “zeroed in on uncanny experiences and become a master of the unsettled” (hence the exhibition’s title). To accentuate the scope of her curatorial concept, she selected artists from different media to contribute essays exploring their experience with being unsettled: John Rusk writing on filmmaking, Rena Butler on choreography, Michael Kiley on sound installations, and Jennifer Margaret Barker on classical composition.

Close-up on Wyeth, a 78-year-old white man with a mop of curly gray hair, smiling and wearing a dark suit.
Jamie Wyeth visited the Brandywine Museum of Art to offer patrons a tour of the new exhibition. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)

While he may have inherited his work ethic and a sense of artistic individualism from his father, Jamie Wyeth is a vastly different painter—in vision, in concept, and in execution. Unsettled seeks to remove him from the context (or confines, depending on your view) of that fabled Brandywine family lore and forward him as the major American painter he is. In this, it succeeds, and admirably. During an artist tour, Wyeth diffidently claimed that “I’m pretty boring. All I do is paint.” But the scope of this exhibition proves that’s more than enough.

Mysterious Familiar in Wilmington

The artist’s fans can continue the journey with a show at Wilmington’s Somerville Manning Gallery: Jamie Wyeth: Mysterious Familiar, running April 5 through June 1, 2024. It’s the second time this gallery (in its own historic building on the banks of the Brandywine) has partnered with a local museum for a concurrent exhibition: in 2022, it was Delaware Art Museum’s look at Holly Trostle Brigham.

Jamie Wyeth: Mysterious Familiar will feature 20 recent works direct from the artist’s studio that highlight some of Jamie’s favorite subjects: Kleberg (the dog with the ring around his eye), pigs, gulls—and some people, too, including Andy Warhol. In preview comments, the gallery notes that it will present two paintings that directly correlate to the museum’s show: Screened Warhol is a layered study for First in the Screen Door Sequence, and Child Chair is a new reimagining of the 1988 painting of the same name now on view in the museum.

At top: Jamie Wyeth’s Dead Cat Museum, Monhegan Island, 1999, oil on canvas, 60 x 40 in. Private collection. © Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

What, When, Where

Jamie Wyeth: Unsettled. Through June 20, 2024 at Brandywine Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, PA. $8-$20 (members and children under 6 free). (610) 388-2700 or brandywine.org.

Accessibility

Masks are not required. The entire museum (including the Millstone Café) is wheelchair-accessible, with accessible parking, barrier-free entrance, and available wheelchairs. Service animals welcome. Note that the front courtyard is under construction, so the museum is accessed through a side door via a long, sloping wooden walkway.

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