He was a quiet and unassuming man. Admittedly shy, he leaned toward President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy: “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” His stick was his art—especially his series of digital collages, Tales from the Near Side, which he worked on for nearly five years until he died of COVID-19 last spring (April 2, 2020). These exacting images articulate his unique understanding of the human experience that both divides and unites us. On the first anniversary of his death, I cannot let the irony of his untimely passing nor the wisdom and levity that his work provides go without comment.
I first met Carleton Wing when he opened Wingspan Gallery on the corner of Second and Jefferson Streets in Lexington, KY where he gave voice to local and regional artists for several years, including my own. He sold the gallery in 2012 after being diagnosed with leukemia and moved with his wife, Livia, to Tampa, FL where he received intense treatment and a stem cell transplant that ultimately saved his life. It was a rare gift from a 20-year-old German lad who understood the inextricable connectedness between human beings, the same understanding with which Carleton approached his life and his art.
While working on an article about his collages, assemblages, and mandalas for UnderMain, I visited with Carleton in his home studio on a crisp September afternoon shortly after he returned to Lexington in 2017. He was seeking a new stride, and the dry wit and humor that characterized his expression and his art kept me well entertained during our four-hour exchange. Three and a half years later, however, I am more interested in what we did not talk about during that interview, in what we did not know at the time, and in four pieces I did not consider when I first wrote about his work.
Given the tragic circumstances and events following the outbreak of COVID-19 within a single year, these four works have taken on multiple levels of meaning that far outweigh the layers of digital images Carleton used to create them. And they could be disturbing in their surreal, dreamlike quality were it not for the accompanying titles that suggest the realm of possibility, the real subject of his art, which embodied his faith in the human spirit and fueled his keen perception, intuition, and optimism.
In the first image, Come on, We Can Do This, the trees hang eerily upside down as if straining to supply oxygen and light to the inner linings of lung tissue ravaged by COVID-19. Or it could be that the backdrop beneath the glow of those inverted trees is a familiar map so dotted with hotspots of corona virus outbreaks that we can no longer identify the boundaries that define our differences. Regardless of what you make of it, to upend the devastation and divisiveness created by this pandemic and political fallout requires a concerted effort. But we must first be willing to look inward before calling each other to task.
The two men dressed in red and blue, uttering the titled words, are really one and same. They are not staring each other down in a game of truth or dare; they are looking at their own resistance, the other side of self. Except for the color of their partisan uniforms, they are identical, including the fear they are trying to obscure. If they can come to terms with themselves and acknowledge their interconnectedness, the distance between them will vanish. They will stand united for the common good and with a common goal.
The second image, St. Andrew’s Annual Blessing of the Helping Hands, is not as straight forward in its practicality. These gloved, disembodied hands that dangle above St. Andrew from noose-like ropes seem to be as much in need of assistance as a blessing. Saint Andrew stands resolute in his ecclesiastical garb, ritually oblivious to their plight, cradling holy icons as his faithful canine looks up at him with an expression of supplication. The symbolic palm trees (think of Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday) assure the souls to which these helping hands belong of victory and triumph over the vicissitudes of fortune and the promise of peace and eternal life. But can faith alone get them through?
If we supplant the face of St. Andrew with that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, these helping hands become the tied hands of myriad emergency workers who have been on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis every day—exhausted hands that resuscitate, intubate, soothe, bathe, and pray for those dying alone. Dr. Fauci’s daily blessings have implored each of us to do our part, to place a portion of our faith in the science that delivers safe and effective vaccines, to stop politicizing the virus, and to do what we know works to protect ourselves and each other. But the Trump administration and his supplicants ignored Dr. Fauci’s pleas causing infections, deaths, and untold suffering on the grandest of scales nationwide.
I hate to invoke the hackneyed expression, a picture is worth a thousand words, but this is exactly what the third image, Sashaying Myself down the Path of Self-Aggrandizing Narcissistic Glory, sticks in your face. It could easily go without comment regardless of how you lean—left, right, or center. However, Trump proclaimed during his 2016 campaign that he could “stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone,” and he wouldn’t lose any voters. Then in early March 2020, he christened the COVID-19 virus a hoax and declared it would “miraculously go away” by Easter. His proclamation on being above the law proved virtually true, but his claim regarding the virus and ensuing miracle was an alternate reality.
Here he stands, a false prophet parading as president, facing his worst enemy with helpless and unblessed hands drooping at his side. His elephantine stumps are as staunch as his base. The iconic façade of the White House South Porch and the tattered, diaphanous Old Glory that grace the background cannot save him. They symbolize the artist’s presentiment of Trump’s monumental failure and betrayal of Office. He has had a mesmerizing effect on those who believe in him or pretend to out of self-interest. His Machiavellian rule, it is much safer to be feared than loved, worked. And it left him without the thing he desired most.
The Urban Shaman portrayed in this fourth image is the zeitgeist of our times and a token of our collective conscience—the inescapable burden of our humanity. He is not disguised, with painted face, in cloaks made from animal hide nor a fur cap with horns like the faux shaman who was part of the throng that stormed the capitol on January 6. This brown urbanite glares at us instead through the gears of identical discarded time pieces and if you stare back at him long enough, you will see an irrefutable reflection of yourself. He challenges us to imagine a world where every person matters and to understand the full repercussions of every decision we make regardless of our political affiliations or religious beliefs. The COVID-19 epidemic is our test and it will take more than a vaccine to conjure a cure for what ails us.
There is a posthumous immediacy to the images from Carleton’s Tales from the Near Side. They caution that our survival and ability to prevail depend not only on faith but on the miracles of science, cooperation, and dogged determination as well. And they urge us to unite and to act with kindness, understanding, and compassion. This mild-mannered man who wielded a multi-pronged artistic stick knew very well how to drive his message home.
On that reflective autumn afternoon when I first interviewed him, I recall telling him I had no idea what I was going to say about his art. He simply looked at me and smiled and said, “Use your imagination. That’s what I do.” In my attempt to pay homage to Carleton Wing’s life and work, I have endeavored to adhere to his foremost guiding principle for creating art.
Images of artwork provided by Livia Theodoli-Wing.
Three Lexington galleries will be exhibiting the art work of Carleton Wing concurrently during the months of April and May. On Saturday, April 24, 2021, each gallery will have a “Celebration of Life” reception from 4-7 pm. Please contact the individual galleries for hours of operation and COVID protocol for in-person viewing.
Mill and Max Contemplative Art Gallery
315 West Maxwell Street
Lexington, KY (859) 225-4183
City Gallery at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center
140 East Main Street
Lexington, KY (859) 425-2562
The Wills Gallery
190 Jefferson Street
Lexington, KY (859) 396-6740
–James Fields taught for several years as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is currently an Arts Writer, Writing Consultant, and Editor living in Lexington, KY.