Douglas Witmer’s simplicity

It is timely that Douglas Witmer’s solo exhibition, “Dubh Glas” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA) in Philadelphia, opened shortly after the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin retrospective closed to the public. Witmer’s group of ten softly geometric, gesso and acrylic paintings on canvas are reminiscent in atmosphere and texture of Martin’s darker works, made in the mid-2000s, in which rough washes of greys and tempered blacks soaked into her large square canvases, subtly distorting their stretched surfaces. Hung nearest to TSA’s entrance, the visible sections of black gesso in the lead-hued In Plain Sight (Hiding) (2017) seem to absorb the light that streams through the window opposite.

In a 2012 interview with Libby Rosof on the artblog website, Witmer observed that growing up in the farmland of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, imbued his practice with a sense of slowness and an awareness of doubt:

That’s a tendency in my art work, not a mission. My work is intuitive. But it does come from my background and those values. Artists who come from a Mennonite background are conflicted. It’s a tradition that does not value visual arts. The culture is pragmatic. What does a painting do? … I’m a secular Mennonite. The idea of simplicity, the idea of humility, those are things I find meaningful, and I put them in my work.

In this way, Witmer’s paintings share affinities with the modest scale and materiality of the late, celebrated Philadelphia artist Bill Walton’s body of work, whose sensitive use of paint, gesso, charcoal, and graphite draws attention to the subtleties of humble materials, such as cut newsprint, folded paper towels, and frayed squares of cotton tacked to gallery walls. Each work in Witmer’s austere Winterbrook (2015‒17) series of six small panels brings out a different relational quality between paint and canvas: black wash opens up the flawed pores of the canvas grain; dense, dry paint marks the presence of the wooden stretcher as in a rubbing; carefully applied, grey and white thinly glazed layers make another panel’s surface appear taut and tremulous like drumskin.

As Witmer’s spare collection of non-images questioningly explore paint’s potential, they also conjure associations with photography and digital culture. I Alone (2017), a portrait-oriented canvas in which an opaque black square hovers over grey wash, resembles a undeveloped polaroid or a blank computer screen. Shake the polaroid or switch on the monitor, and perhaps an image will emerge.