David Wells, "Some Things I Have Seen" (detail,) 2004, mixed media

If you were bored-really bored-and had no money to spend, the thing to do as a kid was to get your hands on a Sears catalog. By pasting down pages and cutting out the figures, appliances, and tools that it showcased, you could supply yourself with an endless stream of flimsy, but entertaining, playthings. David Wells still has a sense for this, as his exhibition “Some Things I Have Seen Recently” suggests. Wells makes flat, toy-like figures by mounting rather ordinary images of people and objects taken from newspapers and magazines on Plexiglas, cutting them out, adding small magnets to form bases, and then sticking them to metal shelves that run along the gallery walls. Their scale and style are identical to that of paper-dolls and cereal-box cutouts, but they are crafted with the elegance and precision of a vengeful adult finally making good on his childhood struggle to get paper figures not to fall over. Although Wells considers each figure to be an individual work of art, for this show they have been precisely-and one would assume meaningfully-arranged in groups on their shelves. They are not to be disturbed by visitors. Although he employs a variety of compositional schemes, he most often chooses to take advantage of their magnetic quality by pairing the pieces, one on top of the shelf and one, inverted, below it.

The arrangements, however, rarely make sense. While one tableaux in which a red rooster is paired with a Soviet rocket booster might suggest a mockery of the latter as a product of strutting male hubris at its zenith, most others seem random. Clint Eastwood and his .45 paired with a boat launch fixture? A pleasant looking dog paired with a cluster of microphones from a press conference? Public light fixtures, telephone poles, and red traffic lights-all of which can be combined with just about anything-abound.
While the images may be ordinary, the fact that they are most often selected from newspapers (along with the title of each piece, Wells offers the source) imbues them with a sense of topical importance. Everyone is trained to recognize a photo-journalistic image as something above and apart from a frivolous advertisement or family snapshot; it made the news, so it must be important. Wells' use of news media-born images, which promise information, automatically suggests a content-driven approach to experiencing the work. A careful decoding might seem in order.

Of course, their arrangement makes this impossible. While the individual images may suggest real content despite themselves, a Bruckner Boulevard planter paired with a corporate satellite truck will quickly demoralize any viewer bent on deciphering meaning. It simply evaporates in the face of these senseless combinations. Applying a Cagean strategy of randomness to something as sacred as The New York Times (the largest single source of Wells' images) journalistic product comes off as gentle mockery, and indeed, one cannot get through this show without laughing out loud at some of the arrangements. But one is also left in the irksome position of being surrounded by images that radiate a sense of importance but are ultimately mute.

However, the option of experiencing the work on a more personal level also presents itself. While Wells chooses to display the pieces in random combinations, the toy-like manner that he uses to give them form is very specific. Walt Disney liked to use the word “neoteny” to describe his company's vision; to him, it meant the ability to look at the world through the eyes of a child. Wells' cutouts invite that sort of nostalgic gaze, for reasons that go beyond simple paper-doll associations. Their highly crafted nature reinforces their connection with the models of our youth, models that demanded-but rarely received-a certain level of competency with tools and paint. Under Wells' direction a return trip to the garden of youth is cut short by the overtly referenced source of his images-namely, the daily news, which is the primary fuel of adult anxiety. The specter of their source keeps any nostalgic transformation of the viewer in check. If the subjects he chose to turn into playthings were of a more sensational nature (the charred ruins of a bus targeted by terrorists, for example) they would be no more of a threat to Disney's neoteny than these unexceptional selections. Perhaps the work would even come off as gimmicky, rather than quietly discomforting.

This play on our latent proclivity for things made tiny will never deliver the phenomenologically-induced experience of Bachelard's man with the magnifying glass, who recaptures his youth using the instrument that “gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child;” Wells's images can't shirk their source and allow for a fresh eye. Like the natives of Lilliput who strap Gulliver to the ground, these miniatures are objects to be reckoned with. They coax us gently back towards childhood, then abandon us. Perhaps the fact that the maker of a body of work titled “Some Things I Have Seen Recently” has seen none of them outside of the printed page should have given us a clue that something was up.

John Giglio
Brooklyn, New York