Julia Westerbeke’s Morphology

by Vanessa Thill

Westerbeke InstallationJulia Westerbeke. Installation view of Morphology. September 2014.

Morphology is Julia Westerbeke’s first solo exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery and builds on idiosyncratic techniques that the artist has been developing over several years. By turns meticulous and impetuous, Westerbeke’s approach to materials is stunning in its detail. Nearly microscopic pen-work spreads out across surfaces like bacteria, seeming to self-reproduce ad infinitum. Her paper cuts are miraculous in their precision. This fanatical attention to detail is tempered by viscous sealing wax drips that hang from several different works and comprise the vaguely anthropomorphic sculpture called Pair. These unruly surfaces reference the ooze of natural forms, as in her piece Rind, where an untamable blob exceeds the frame. This exuberance of sculptural material creates a superb balance when contrasted with her super controlled paper surfaces.

Her inspiration is clearly drawn from biological shapes; less apparent is her investment in Gaston Bachelard’s theory of “psychic weight”—that certain forms have immediate intimacy that plunges the viewer into personal memory. Her abstractions are latent with her own secret histories. Although the artist’s hand is quite ethereal, her presence is hidden throughout the installation: Proxy is hung at the level of her height, and Pair stands at the height of her husband. Proxy, Pair, and Core are the most literal works—Proxy’s curlicue cheeriness may be a proxy for the artist herself; Pair’s two upright forms lean tenderly; and Core’s red hue (the only color in the show) and dense central form do evoke a coronary organ.


Julie Westerbeke. Seam (detail). Ink on vellum, white-wax glue, wood shadow box; 31” x 31” x 6”; 2014

Westerbeke’s works are so vivid with textural detail that they seem to yearn for the viewer’s curious touch, a touch that could prove devastating to their fragile architecture. An earlier version of Hypnogogia II was installed directly on the gallery wall at A.I.R. last year, tiny paper circles raised off the wall with even tinier pins. This version, with the cell-like shapes clustered on a bare sheet of paper, adheres as a discrete work rather than disappearing into its surroundings, feeling still vulnerable to harm.

The mystery of these surfaces that construct a bizarre mimicry of nature is part of these works’ appeal. Shadow boxes that bristle with cut paper tendrils would benefit from a layer of glass, bringing them the mesmerizing quality of an aquatic or scientific display. Perhaps for this reason, Stem II is the strongest and most polished piece in the show. What looks like three lengths of rope are, on closer inspection, composed of countless paper tentacles. As the eye moves left to right, black wax inches downwards, enveloping the delicate core. Acting almost as a stop motion view or series of graphic panels, emotional tension is heightened by the illusion of movement. The thick black wax seems to creep across the wall, creating an engrossing dynamic of frozen time. Indeed, Westerbeke’s strong suit is capturing a still second in what must be a teeming micro-universe. Her pieces are poised to resume vigorous and unending growth as soon as one looks away.

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