And are you quite pleased to see the Jardin des Tuileries? As ever snappy, Nairn’s Paris states, “The eastern end, next to the Louvre, is a mini Versailles of formal planting: the western end, next to the Place de la Concorde, one of the most soothing places on earth. Nowhere else in Paris is the city’s uniqueness presented with such conviction. Because this end of the garden is, simply, a gravelled space interrupted occasionally with grass and thickly planted with trees in a formal pattern.” A sustainable lawnmower – a tethered goat – keeps the grass trim. Every perspective in these distinctive gardens of sacred and human geometry resembles a Sabine Weiss frame. Photography collector and dealer Peter Fetterman believes, “Aged 95, Sabine Weiss is the last great photographer of that great humanist period. She recently had a retrospective at the Pompidou.”
It’s a private view, so private it’s Lavender’s Blue* and Wolfe touring the two floors which have been transformed by museum lighting and, of course, art. “You don’t have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa!” exclaims the 48 year old British artist. The French surroundings are immediately rather apt. “Some paintings are so iconic they seem unapproachable. But think of how artists like Duchamp and Warhol reinterpreted famous historic art.”
This Mona Lisa for the 21st century – although it will later transpire that time is not of the essence in the House of the Nobleman exhibition – is a recognisably intimate version of its predecessor. Same scale, same pose, same serenity, different detail. On closer inspection the painting is actually a medley of motifs found across Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre. The trees to the left are from his Annunciation; the trees to the right, The Virgin and St Anne; the shoulder ribbons from La Belle Ferronnière, and so on. He condenses Leonardo’s artistic output into a single enigma. It’s conceptual without being conceptualist.
Wolfe reveals he chose the Renaissance as a platform for experimentation because it was an age when artists attempted to root the making of art in a mathematical and aesthetically programmable formula. He renders his pencil and oil studies with a careful craftsmanship that seeks to replicate the original conditions and painting practices of Renaissance artists. It’s an exploration of the possibility of algebraic multiplication in reverse, drilling down an aesthetic object to its essential numbers. And onwards, to its prime number. Wolfe presents a Wittgensteinesque proposition that an artwork requires no further description to be in and of itself.
“These works represent a nonlinear flattening of history,” he relates. “They’re inspired by centuries of art… Botticelli, Michelangelo, Bruegel, Stubbs, Riley, Hirst. Why not Rupert Bear too? Inspiration doesn’t always have to be highbrow art or even art! On the surface, Wolfe transfixes and seduces us with his rare technical ability. Dig deeper beyond his respectful grasp of iconography. Yes, he succeeds in reviving the algebra of art, liberating it from the confines of history to a newness of meaning. In this way, Wolfe’s latest works question the notions of resolution and finish while maintaining the utmost respect for his forebears.