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Prof. Wardwell fuses landscape images with lyrics

Professor Joseph Wardwell (FA) creates contemporary works of art with traditional landscape paintings and text from rock lyrics. The paintings, he says, make social and political statements about American society and culture. Wardwell finds that the relationship between American culture and landscape is the power to create a national identity, he noted.

An example of national identity is seen in one of Wardwell’s newest paintings titled, “It Ain’t Movies It’s not TV.” It makes a reference to Donald Trump becoming president. The words in the title are lyrics to the song, “Reagan’s In” by punk band Wasted Youth. “Reagan’s In” is an anti-Reagan song that was released in 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. Wardwell connects the lyrics, “It Ain’t Movies It’s not TV” with the controversial victory of President Trump winning the election, Wardwell explained.


The words also make a reference to the former occupation of both presidents, he added. Before being inaugurated into office, Ronald Reagan was a movie star, and Donald Trump was the host of the reality TV show “The Apprentice,” for which he is still the executive producer. “He might run the country like a TV show,” Wardwell joked.

Wardwell described his artistic process: He first starts off with an abstract or landscape painting. He then lays a stencil with the text he wants to use and creates another painting on top of the stencil. His final product is a painting with three layers: an abstract or a landscape image in the background, the text and an image created within the text.

Wardwell was recently featured in an art exhibit titled “Loud and Clear” at the Miller Yezerski Gallery in Boston’s Sowa art district. It featured other artists that used song lyrics in their art. Using text on images has been done for years, even during the era of Pablo Picasso. Wardwell, however, found a way to add text on traditional oil paintings, according to Ellen Miller, owner of the Miller Yezerski Gallery. By adding text, he is taking a traditional landscape oil painting and making it abstract.

In some of Wardwell’s paintings the landscape art is within the words, causing the words to create the image. His painting “You Have To Get Up” contains a red background with the words “You have to Get Up” on top. The letters are painted in such a way that they create an image of a field of grass and trees with the sunrise in the back. By creating an image with the words, a connection is formed between the landscape and the text, according to Ellen Miller. The combination of the sunrise, the scenery and the text makes the viewers feel like they are being told to wake up, she explained.

In other paintings, the words make it hard for an observer to see the abstract or landscape image, therefore putting more emphasis on what the words are saying. The painting “Tell Me What You’ve Got to Look Pleased About” is an abstract painting of different colors painted together with the text “Tell Me What You’ve Got to Look Pleased About” on top. The letters in this painting create a landscape image; however, the phrase overpowers the landscape. In addition, the majority of the abstract painting is covered by the text, thus forcing the viewers to pay closer attention to the words on the painting.

Wardwell’s paintings offer “a show of word and image paintings that are as provocative as they are beautiful,” according to a review in The Seattle Times. Wardwell teaches Advanced Drawing at Brandeis University. His next exhibit will take place at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in June.

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