For the last nine years, artist Trevor Wentworth has made work at studios in Bushwick, Williamsburg, and most recently Carroll Gardens. His third floor studio in the Invisible Dog building on Bergen Street is eight feet wide and twelve feet long, just enough room for the bare essentials: a work bench outfitted with an inkjet printer, cutting mat, and aluminum tins filled with thousands of paper shards. Adjacent is a stark white tabletop resting on two sawhorses, which serves as his canvas.
It’s here that Wentworth, 35, creates his bracingly complex paper sculptures and miniature tabletop installations, which form at the intersection of the physical and metaphorical definitions of the lens. In a utilitarian sense, the lens is used as a medium to bring people closer to things that are not able to be perceived with the naked eye, for observing events constantly in flux occurring all around us that we are unable to witness. If you were to look at a cross-section of the miniscule objects Wentworth produces, you might notice a similarity to the stratification of rock on a cliff face, although in this case each stratum is extremely fragile and up to 1/100th of an inch thick. Aside from the physicality of material composed through additively stacking tiny fragments of hand-cut paper, Wentworth’s work is also layered in terms of perception of time, scale, and interpretation.
In a post-recession art market with no shortage of artists whose practices are centered around producing fast, childlike marks and premature nostalgic gestures to recent pop culture ephemera, Wentworth’s work shows a refreshing level of commitment to both the craft of making and the exploration of challenging subject matter, without sacrificing sense of play.
Born on a military base in Lackenheath, England, and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Wentworth received his BFA from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa before moving to Brooklyn. Naturally, his influences include Chuck Close and Godzilla. The latter specifically for the visual aesthetic of post-WWII Japanese pop art, and the humbling implications of depicting an enormous other-worldly, fire-breathing dragon wreaking havoc on innocent civilians as a coping mechanism for an entire civilization reckoning with the unimaginable power of the atomic bomb. His intense admiration for Close is rooted in the famed artist’s non-traditional practice.
“[Close] turned away from the idea of making prints to making one-offs and process-based works built around the matrix and the multiple,” he told me. “I just remember being nineteen and going from Mississippi up to Washington and walking into a retrospective of his work at the National Gallery and it was like walking into a church. I will never forget the impact of seeing some of his paintings and early print work that was fairly non-traditional for the time.”
Wentworth’s last major body of work, 2005’s Eight Guardians of the Sacred Prize (pictured below, courtesy Winkleman), took him three years to complete. The piece grew out of a fascination with the father of microbiology, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, and the historical context of socio-political affairs that surrounded his life’s work, namely the Anglo-Dutch Wars and his relationship with the Royal Society of London. After digesting his research and filtering it through possible abstract representations, he began building a paper environment born out of the lens.
Wentworth dove into an immersive process of replication both in the daily ritual of fabricating nearly identical sculptural components, and through emulating a scientific approach by donning white laboratory coveralls and using X-acto knives like scalpels while doing so.
Visually speaking, the carefully arranged clusters of objects seem to reduce the scale of 1960’s futurist cityscapes to the size of architectural models while magnifying the speculative imagery of pioneering microbiologists from the 1760’s. This interest in the tension of authenticity between the one-of-a-kind precious object and the mass-produced archetype, along with his choice of ink and paper as materials, is rooted in Wentworth’s background as a printmaker. Furthering that tradition into a contemporary setting through the use of the inkjet prints, he carves miniscule chunks out to create the miniature sculptures, some smaller than two square millimeters.
Almost all of the objects are flanked with more whimsical forms, virus-like appendages and flowery growths; tiny lightning bolt graphics signaling electrical connections, all of which lend a sense of humor to the work and offers the viewer a break from the density of the subject matter and nearly imperceptible complexities of micro-detail. Here, color plays a far more interesting role though with rich purples, synthetic greens, and bright pinks contrasting an otherwise neutral palette.
Encountering the work has an overwhelming feeling of slowing down time and places the viewer into a foreign environment. At first impression it remains unclear whether the intention of the piece is to gain control over the influence of unseen processes or simply an attempt to understand them. While Leeuwenhoek’s slides petrified the “landscapes” of cellular structures, Wentworth’s sculptures actualize them in three-dimensional space, affording points of view from multiple planes and angles. The viewer can examine the perpetually cyclical, ephemeral moments of replication and get lost in trying to analyze the contingent effects that one element imposes on the whole.
Wentworth’s massive honeycombed structures nod to the modular, hive-like towers of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City with enough evidence of the handmade to simultaneously evoke the more intuitive, undulating curves of Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera, both fittingly designed as shells that house a myriad of inhabitants.
Five years have passed since this last undertaking. The last three months have found him vigilantly printing and slicing paper in preparation for his next body of work, which he expects to finish in a year and a half (preview pictured, top).
This time around an army of rigid, rectilinear structures sprawled out across the table seem more reminiscent of Goldberg’s fellow Bauhaus-schooled mentor and adversary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Eventually, these cities will be the byproduct growing from a watery environment of broken test tubes shattering as they endlessly fall off a conveyor belt system churning from the mouth of a machine-like godhead. One theme that continues to emerge throughout our conversation is that of the “futility of science.”
Wentworth elaborates on this representation of the multiple as “a kind of loss of control… the whole piece being born out of a mistake and these broken units creating these very ordered but out of control systems that are then making themselves over and over and over again – that’s the kind of reference to futility and the impact of origin myths – a god making this bumbling error or mistake and all of this coming out of it.”
Tying this idea into his previous work, he draws a parallel with these “mistakes” and the tension between natural genetic mutation and synthetic modification. Further quoting this kind of breakdown in relation to the antiquated computer panels adorning the buildings Wentworth has constructed is what’s referred to as “cascading systems failure,” whereby one glitch acts as a catalyst for the termination of interconnected programs. The blank tabletop canvas next to his bench will be covered,in a literal sense, with a printed design towards the end of the project. For now, it forms a compositional barrier where the sculptural components are constantly rearranged and adjusted into possible formations. When asked about how specific or refined his idea of how the final piece will look, he’s certain of thematic narratives but does not do any drawings or sketch work in preparation. “Each piece is fabricated as I go so things change dramatically as the piece evolves, and for me that’s the process that’s enjoyable. I don’t lock myself down to one specific thing; nuances and nicer things just start to happen. I try not to predict what’s going to happen, I just let things kind of flow.”
Those interested in Trevor Wentworth’s work might be inclined to look into the flatwork of local artist Daniel Zeller, showing at Pierogi, 177 North 9th Street in Williamsburg, and the sculptures from Technological Reliquaries at (former Brooklynite) Paul Thek’s retrospective at The Whitney in Manhattan.