Wilde (pronounced WILL-dee) was born in Milwaukee in 1919 and spent most of his life in Wisconsin, both producing art and teaching it for 34 years at UW-Madison. His medium of choice was painting, supplemented by printmaking, drawing and silverpoint – the ancient practice of drawing with silver wire fashioned into a mechanical pencil of sorts.
Influenced by northern Renaissance painters and more contemporary European artists like Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, Wilde turned to magic realism, an “off shoot” of the surrealist movement, or what has been called America’s version of surrealism. “Surrealism deals with dream imagery and the subconscious, while magic realism is based in reality with fantastical elements,” says gallery owner Tory Folliard.
Folliard has represented Wilde since 1993, after encountering his work the decade before and becoming enraptured by its strange beauty.
“I love the disturbing figurative works as well as the gorgeous still lifes. I was fascinated with his originality and gorgeous painting style,” she says. “At this time, John only had representation in New York and Chicago and was looking for a gallery in Milwaukee. The timing was perfect.”
Disturbing and gorgeous are just two words to describe Wilde’s dreamlike – and often nightmarish – work. “He has a dark humor that can be entertaining and bizarre,” Folliard adds. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Wilde was “deeply disturbed by World War II,” Folliard says, “and it had a profound influence on his work.” While serving, Wilde kept a hybrid journal/sketchbook of verbal and visual reflections on the war, which he would revisit in his work for decades to come.
The horrors of war and Wilde’s deep Wisconsin roots would form the basis of his subject matter: startling and fantastical subjects set against realistic, often pastoral landscapes. Wilde managed to combine the strangeness of the subconscious with the lucidity of the conscious mind.
John Wilde – 100, on view Nov. 29 through Dec. 28, celebrates the artist’s life and work on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The show features paintings and drawings that span a prolific 65-year career. Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St.