If someone wanted to send you a postcard from hell, Patrick Welch would be the best living candidate to paint it. But it might make you want to visit. Welch's hell is goofy, cryptic, fairly self-aggrandizing, and inviting. In his new show of nearly 100 tiny acrylic paintings, cute little science fiction nightmares drift across wistful reddish skies at dusk; scenes of pulp horror, medical illustrations, and sedate bits of clip art float across backgrounds of cool blues and browns. In a series entitled "United in Their Hatred of Patrick W. Welch," famous contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, and Komar and Melamid wear awkward space suits and hang around outside his house, ganging up to urinate on him and kick his ass.
"I'm trying to make visual that notion that many of us have, that we're both the biggest idiots in the world and geniuses at the same time," says Welch, whose first solo show of paintings opened last week at Gescheidle (there's a reception Friday, September 13, from 6 to 9). "Although they're urinating on me and stabbing me and hanging me, at least they're paying attention. It deals with wanting to do well--this body of work acknowledges that at least I've attained enough notoriety to have gotten these guys' attention. But then they come back at me with urine."
In another painting in the series--a picture of vehicles with artists' names attached to them--Richter is a mighty locomotive and Welch is a pair of running shoes with stink lines rising from them. But it's a setup: The scale makes the famous artists overwhelmingly powerful and unreachable, while Welch's shoes are humble, human-scaled, wearable.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London and an instructor at the Illinois Institute of Art, Welch may be best known in Chicago for the journalistic comics he creates with his wife, Carrie Golus, which have appeared in Newcity and Pulse, as well as a strip that's appeared in UR Chicago and the Stranger in Seattle. But despite Welch's productivity he's obsessed with uselessness: "I'm interested in genres that are universally despised. So sci-fi appeals to me, as do bad typefaces." On one side of the window above his drawing table, Welch has taped a sheet with the phrase "You're useless" in a luxuriant variety of ugly fonts. On the other side of the window, a sheet accepts and repeats the verdict: "I'm useless."
His subject matter belies how much fun his paintings are to approach and squint at. "The fact that the postcards of these paintings are the same size as the originals--I love that," he says. "It forces the viewer to have an intimate relationship with it. If you're the vaguest bit interested you have to go up close, and once you go up close I think I've got you."
He argues that his work deals with a weird facet of our relationship to art, one that cropped up when mechanical reproduction got easy: not only do most people now see more art in books and on postcards than in person, but there's a way in which the copies are more real. "Big paintings demand you get close, too, look at the individual brush strokes. But when you get close the illusion breaks; it's abstraction. With mine I try and paint so that you can never get close enough for it to dissolve into brush strokes. The surfaces are completely smooth." Welch's work is only abstract from a distance--from 20 feet back, his wall at a previous exhibit looked like a quilt.
His work crackles with tension between its cute, accessible format and its violent, confusing, ugly content. His solution is to miniaturize his hate. In a series called "Three Maggots," he exacts revenge on a trio of individuals who supposedly treated him badly in his career. They are crushed, drowned, and run over by a train, a steamroller, and a 1976 Chevy Malibu. But unlike the titanic works of Gerhard Richter, you could actually fit one--or nine--of Welch's silly, luminous little fist shakings into your bathroom.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogelman.