Some believe that knowledge can ultimately tame the world, while others, like Peter Wegner, exult in the world’s wild unknowability. Wegner’s work gently pokes at the former group and its presumptuous definitions, mappings, systems and circumscriptions. “Terra Firma Incognita,” the title of this show and its centerpiece installation, sums up his position: we all stand firmly upon the elusive.
The title installation (2007) speckled a 17-by-80-foot wall with 2,000 Frisbee-size paper disks that were inkjet-printed with enlarged details from a relief map of the world. Wegner pinned the sheets to the wall, to grandly pointillist effect, in the pattern of a target, with dense, concentric rings of gold and green disks (the relief map’s earth tones) surrounded by a sky or sea of more diffuse blue ones. The faint grid drawn on the wall underneath alluded to conventional mapping methods, but Wegner’s map was an exuberant display of dislocation, a free-floating celebration of every place and no place. Names of locales read as fragments of concrete poetry in unlikely juxtapositions. Untethered from their referential function, the map cutouts became units of pure color, pattern and visual texture.
Though the installation’s scale and labor-intensive construction were impressive, the work was not as lyrically rich as Wegner’s earlier wall pieces nor as absorbing as the recent smaller, framed works that rounded out this show. Five prints (each 35 inches square) from the 2009 “Reverse Atlas” series were especially clever and compelling. Here, Wegner digitally minced the pages of an atlas and collaged them back together, trading utility for optical buzz. In one print, map strips were laid out in horizontal rows punctuated with blank white spaces, something like the black voids in a censored letter. In another, Wegner digitally wove thin bands into the image of a quavery-edged green square hovering atop a field of sand and ocher—a nod to both Rothko and Albers. Infusing geometric abstraction with cartographic whimsy, Wegner has found a coy new variant on the marriage of the universal and the particular.
In “Buildings Made of Sky,” a series begun in New York several years ago, Wegner (who now lives in Berkeley) inverted photographs he shot in the deep shadows of dusk or dawn, looking down the corridors of densely built city streets. Upside down, the blue wedge in the center of each picture registers as a tapered silhouette aspiring upward, transformed through Wegner’s light-touched magic from negative to positive, from sky to skyscraper. Wegner’s thoroughly engaging work oscillates between tenderness, humor and awe. It hollows out the authority of familiar information systems to reveal a new, provocative beauty in their empty shells.