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Strong works that fit in a purse

SLY wit, superb draftsmanship, exquisite color, and a delightfully iconoclastic attitude characterize John Wilde's art. It is pristine, fanciful, and provocative, and so small that many of his paintings could fit into a woman's purse.

Above all, it is modest and unassuming and prefers to speak softly and with gentle grace. If 20th-century art is seen as a huge, overgrown garden with every flower and weed under the sun competing desperately for attention, then Wilde's paintings and drawings would be a cluster of violets shyly making their presence known in a quiet corner.

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This modesty, however, must not be mistaken for weakness or for a lack of having anything to say. At their best, his works pack a punch that paintings 10 times their size often fail to achieve. Size and aggressive attitude aren't everything, after all, even in today's rather confused and confusing museum and gallery world. We still realize the importance of Paul Klee, even though his pictures are generally tiny and fragile, and our respect for Blake, Redon, and Tobey hasn't noticeably diminished though their work is intimate and small.

In Wilde's case, however, several other factors set his creative efforts apart from what the rest of the art world is producing. They are his lyrically representational style, which draws its inspiration both from acute observation and early Flemish and Italian Renaissance sources; his consistent, rigorously controlled technique; and his bemused, sardonic view of the world.

Combined, these qualities result in pictures unlike any others seen today. In fact, to some purists, Wilde's paintings stand so far apart from current fashions and trends that they hardly even qualify as art.

What utter nonsense! As though truth in art - or in any other area of human endeavor - depended upon conformity to a particular style or language.

I wonder when we'll learn that art is one of the best means for removing the cobwebs from our minds, the film from our eyes, and the vulgarities that tarnish our sensibilities. Perhaps we will learn this, once we realize that every true, nonconforming artist's work gives us a unique glimpse into the richness of life, one more lens to perceive the universe within and around us. And that to reject out of hand the art and the vision of others is much the same as drawing all the blinds and nailing shut all the doors of our homes.

I'll never know, for instance, who, what, or where I'd be today without the insights afforded by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Cezanne, and dozens of other artists at various critical moments of my life.

I also owe John Wilde a great deal. His drawings taught me, while I was still an art student, that the whiteness of paper can be transformed into light and volume, that it can be manipulated in much the same way a sculptor models clay. And that paper itself need not be merely a surface upon which lines are drawn.

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Not much of a lesson, surely, considering the larger problems of our day. But for me it was a crucial insight, one I wish the majority of artists whose drawings I view every day had learned.

I'm also grateful for Wilde's paintings. His ability to transform ordinary things into jewel-like images has caused me to see apples, turnips, loaves of bread, etc., in a new light. Thanks to him, I can now envision going for a walk in the country and coming upon a giant eggplant stuck in the ground. And I no longer find it strange that a huge kohlrabi should dominate a rural landscape, or that a mountain view would include the sight of Wilde himself lecturing to a frog, a dog, and a bird.

I am grateful for all such slightly out-of-kilter happenings, and for the hundreds of works he has produced in which everyday life has been shifted just enough to place it somewhere between the world of Alice in Wonderland and reality as we know it.

But art is more than fun and games, and Wilde's is no exception. His outstanding gift to me, to his thousands of former students, and to all who have been touched by what he produces, is more difficult to define. It has to do with his warmly civilized attitude toward creativity, teaching, and society, and his ability to convey his profound belief in quality and integrity.

His paintings and drawings represent standards and ideals, and insist that life is good. He and his art stand for clarity and continuity, for the perfectibility of talent and technique, and for greater self-realization. He sees no advantage in aiming for novelty or sensation or in talking about the newest or the most advanced thing. His wry and intimate still lifes, fantasies, landscapes, allegories, and figure studies may seem overly discreet when surrounded by the kind of work we are impressed by today. But a moment's study will reveal their quality, wit, and humanity, and the likelihood that they will continue to engage our imagination and sensibilities for a long time to come.

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