February 11 - May 14, 2017
Bruce Brown Gallery
“Who can do anything better than this propeller? Can you?”
—Marcel Duchamp, speaking to Constantin Brancusi in front of an airplane, 1914
The most noticeable thing about Mark Wethli’s Piper Cub is that it is incomplete; the abstract framework of an airplane rather than one that is ready to fly. Piper Cub’s identity is further complicated, like Magritte’s famous pipe, by its uncertainty. Is it an actual plane, a sculpture of a plane, a full-scale model of a plane, or in some sense (in its idealized, Platonic forms), the prototype of a plane?
Significantly, Wethli has done nothing to artistically modify or interpret the plane, other than painstakingly recreating and presenting it (or, one might say, re-presenting it), suggesting that the “art” of the piece resides in its conceptual nature (posing questions such as the ones above) rather than its formal one.
At the same time, by presenting Piper Cub in a gallery setting, the artist seems to beg the question of the aesthetic nature of mechanical objects and our categorical approach to beauty. By handcrafting the plane (with help from a team of friends and fellow artists in the final stages), Wethli seems to be encouraging us to look for beauty in unexpected places, not least of all in the contemplation of uncertainty, the joys of memory, and the beauty of sheer abstract form.
Mark Wethli’s father, Ralph Wethli, who was trained as an aircraft mechanic and went on to retire as a flight engineer for Pan American World Airways, restored a derelict Piper Cub in the 1950’s when Wethli was a boy. One of the artist’s earliest memories is watching his father work on the plane a bit at a time during evenings and weekends, alongside his day job as a helicopter mechanic, in Buffalo, New York. Wethli’s Piper Cub is in large part a memoir of that achievement and a tribute to his father, who taught him, by example, the virtues of hard work, integrity, and pride in craftsmanship. Ralph Wethli was also instrumental in helping build his son’s Piper Cub at age 82—exactly 50 years after restoring his own.