Starting over

Don Wilcox picks up the paintbrush after 25 years to create Second First Works

“Absinthe and Philosophy” by Don Wilcox.<i></i>

“Absinthe and Philosophy” by Don Wilcox.

Photo By David Robert

Many of the works by Don Wilcox, now on display at VSA arts of Nevada, are portraits of a sort—the sort of portraits that tend to reveal, not mask or dilute, the subjects’ inner struggles and vulnerabilities. In his paintings, Wilcox visits solitary figures again and again, showing us a lonely absinthe drinker, a man in an ecstatic state of prayer or a woman in wait.

These are Second First Works, paintings Wilcox has created in the last nine months after a long artistic hiatus. Wilcox made a living as an artist in New York and San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, but his artistic life came to a halt 25 years ago.

“At [that] time, I developed a complete mental block against all creative processes,” Wilcox says in his artist’s statement. “I have been afflicted with bipolar disorder most of my life … in the past year I have started painting again, thanks to a wonderful support system, including Nevada Mental Health and VSA arts of Nevada.”

There is rawness and immediacy in Wilcox’s works. Few are framed, and some are even painted on wooden boards and cardboard. His subjects often seem uncomfortable in their bodies, as if they lack the skills of self-presentation. They seem to be inviting—even challenging—the viewer to explore the darker side of life.

“Absinthe Drinker” (acrylic on wood), like many of Wilcox’s paintings, evokes the culture of the 1930s. It features a man seated alone at a cafe, wearing a black hat and a gray coat. His face is drab and tired. He looks as though he wants to withdraw from society, to pull his coat a little higher and his hat a little lower, to shield his face from the world around him.

“Absinthe and Philosophy” (acrylic on canvas) has a cast of two characters, who are presumably engaged in a philosophical discussion. Yet these two aging philosophers, dressed in black coats and top hats, hardly look like participants in a lively dialogue; their postures are contemplative, their eyes averted and distant. Just as “Absinthe Drinker” portrays the dark side of solitude, “Absinthe and Philosophy” suggests that there is hardly safety or comfort in numbers.

A large number of Wilcox’s subjects are female and range from young and seductive to reserved and matronly. “Nude Female” (oil on canvasboard) features a young black woman seated on a bright yellow chair. She is voluptuous, with large red lips, a round belly and bulbous breasts. Her head is tilted sharply to the left, as if she is studying you, the viewer, and can’t quite figure you out.

The tilted head is a trait shared by many of Wilcox’s female subjects. At times, this makes the subject look quizzical. In “Woman Waiting” (oil on canvas), however, it causes the subject to look tired and jaded. The waiting woman is seated alone at a kitchen table. Her elbow is propped on the table, and her head is propped on her hand. Like the absinthe drinkers, she has a 1930s look about her—she could be Dick Tracy’s girlfriend, in fact, with her cloud of red hair, a tight blue dress and a cigarette.

In “Maternal Woman” (oil pastel on paper), the subject looks bland at first, and then, on closer inspection, fascinating. She has a mere petal of a mouth, with blue, blank, marble-like eyes and one violently arched eyebrow. Her breasts poke through her sky-blue dress, and one points sharply to the left. She holds a slightly wilted red rose in her hand, which mirrors her petal-like red mouth. The aging flower, in fact, may even symbolize the maternal woman herself.

None of Wilcox’s paintings made me feel entirely comfortable. His paintings, particularly his portraits, ask us to examine themes like loneliness and aging, and they force us to be more than merely passive viewers. Second First Works, however, makes this examination well worth our while.