Wishes are weightless, ephemeral things, however urgent and heartfelt. We know perfectly well that they won’t get us anywhere, yet we still make a wish when we blow out our birthday candles or see the first star come out at night. In her exhibit, “Wishes Are Horses,” on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through October 22, Julie Wills deftly shifts the gloomy phrase “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” to hopefulness with a simple change of verb.
The first thing you see at the exhibit’s entrance is a magical horse made of a piece of driftwood heaped with tobacco bundles and a string of lights called “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers).” Burnt matches and birthday candles provisionally stand in for its ears and mane along with a few coins and washers hammered into the weathered wood. It’s a kind of roundup of talismans ranging from ancient Greek to Native American, underscored by the words “wishing on every thing in sight” etched onto some of the lighted bulbs.
This sympathetic nod to the irrational urge to wish sets the stage for a deeply personal look at human yearnings so tender that we tend to keep them secret and unspoken. Like many artists before her, including González-Torres with his bare light bulbs evoking festivity, inspiration, revelation and impermanence, Wills uses the symbolic and associative power of found objects to summon up sensations and snippets of memory. Again and again, her choices of basic, no-frills materials familiar from earliest childhood trigger curiosity and rouse thoughts of how we might see things a little differently.
Mounted on an old shipping palette spray-painted black, a spherical lightbulb stands in for the moon and a severed bird’s wing calls freedom and flight to mind. Wills often layers bits of text into her works, and around the bulb are a few words about the act of soaring. A feeling of beauty and uplift arises but it’s an odd sensation given that it’s stirred by a slightly disheveled bit of feathers and bone and a lightbulb unabashedly trailing its power cord. How the flagrant homeliness of this sculpture creates such magic is a puzzle, not unlike a Zen koan, and it has the same illogical effect of opening a previously unknown part of one’s mind.
Many of the show’s works are about the stars and how we like to gaze at these bright pinpricks hovering in the infinite sky and how we like to wish on them. The night sky is a place of dreaming, of possibilities, of the ancient stories playing out with the seasonal shifting of the stars overhead. But Wills brings it down to earth in funny, childlike ways. The dark, circular skies flecked with tiny stars appearing throughout the exhibit turn out, on closer inspection, to be nothing but worn black sandpaper. It has a gritty texture. It’s very physical. It’s nothing like the untouchable, unreachable midnight sky.
Magical thinking is what’s behind this show, but it’s very self-aware magical thinking. Wills is not concerned with seducing the eye with beautiful or inspiring images but with conjuring understanding from bits of the mundane world we inhabit day after day. Musing on these works, the feeling arises that the mechanisms of understanding life derive from living itself but that it takes a very pointed awareness to sort them out.
Do wishes work? Wills’s optimism about the answer shows in a horizontal row of lightbulbs etched with the words “The world tells me I’m darkness but I know I am light.” Confidence begets the power to act. It’s personal conviction channeled with focus and energy that keeps us wishing and working to make our wishes come true.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.