SPECIAL FEATURE

Paul Wilson and one of his life-size renderings of Lee Harvey Oswald.

“What? No, we can’t have this — this has to go.”

Beth Ames Swartz spies a plastic tray of store-bought cookies and boxes of assembly-line cupcakes that Paul Wilson has brought to a potluck party at Swartz’s home in Paradise Valley. Wilson has placed his offerings next to several lonely homemade pies on a small, unassuming card table doing duty as a dessert staging area near the kitchen.

The Artist’s Breakfast Club, a group of select local artists, including Swartz, has put the party together as a thank you event after they heard that beloved Phoenix Art Museum curator Sara Cochran would be leaving PAM in September 2013. Wilson felt a special allegiance to the popular curator because of her enthusiastic help with a recent group exhibition in which his work had appeared at the museum.

Paul Wilson and his confections would stand out at most any event.

For Cochran’s holiday potluck, Wilson has created special labels for his dessert items, with pictures of himself, Cochran, and a shirtless Lee Harvey Oswald (yes, that Lee Harvey Oswald) on them, with a polite invitation attached: “Please open and enjoy this cellophane trough of store-bought cookies from Target, because factory-made is best.” It’s an inside joke among the people who know Wilson, a confirmed processed-food junkie who refuses to eat anything remotely natural or healthy.

He’s also brought a realistic, rock-hard plastic chocolate cake topped with fake ripe strawberries on a convincing cake plate with a glass dome. Swartz seems to approve of this offering, though later the fake cake is pushed into a kitchen corner, banished from the tiny dessert table. “I don’t like this,” Swartz announces to the artist, gesturing at Wilson’s wacky/tacky dessert selections. “You need to take these because I want the table to be . . . elegant.”

“I’m the absolute rule breaker,” Wilson says later, laughing. He definitely stood out at the party, like a gangrenous thumb in a sea of muted earth tones, in his vintage turquoise wool suit, a bow tie, and a loud Santa hat, carrying a favorite Lee Harvey Oswald doll he had made, and peppered with iridescent snow that fell from the artist in a Hansel-and-Gretel trail wherever he walked. He left the desserts for Cochran to find. She was thrilled by them.

It’s obvious that Beth Ames Swartz, whose own artwork tends toward ethereal abstraction, was clueless about — or maybe just chose to ignore — the attention-grabbing performative art of Paul Wilson, which for more than 40 years has been about the fake, the faddishly fashionable, and the factory-made, especially that which dates to the 1950s and early ’60s. To Wilson, director and stage manager of his very own theater of the absurd, artifice and illusion is ultimate reality. And what the uninitiated might view as childish shenanigans, the mainstream art establishment now takes very seriously.

Wilson's mythic 1950s suburbanite Kimble family.

Until recently, Paul Wilson just might have been considered the Phoenix art community’s best-kept secret, despite his sometimes outrageously artistic antics and the national media coverage it’s garnered through the years.

The 50-year-old native-born Phoenix artist and theatrical scene painter, collector of vintage treasures, and notoriously picky bon vivant — known to always wear a 1950s-style jacket and some iteration of a dated tie — has produced gender- and mind-bending art in just about every medium conceivable, including photography, video, performance, installation, and social media.

Though his work has been well-known on the Internet for some time, it’s been only during the past several years that art-world attention has been directed at it. Much of the work is set against the backdrop of an idealized mid-century American past, re-created in exacting detail in the real-world 1957 ranch-style home he lived in pretty much since birth.

The openly gay artist, who makes a living as a freelance set designer and painter for various Valley theater groups, is so enamored of mid-century American mores and design that he’s spent years turning his home into a convincing copy of what could easily have been a set rescued from a photographic shoot for a ’50s issue of House Beautiful. Wilson, who currently doesn’t have a significant other, will work on both his professional and art projects until 4 in the morning, then sleep until 3 p.m., when he starts his nocturnal schedule anew.

Obsessed with the 1950s and ’60s, Wilson has made it his mission to both examine in minute detail and unabashedly poke fun at ideas of unattainable social and physical perfection, rapacious consumerism, and material gain foisted on us by advertising, the media, and pop culture during that provocative post-war era and into the ever-mutating millennial present.

Beginning in high school, his art, which easily could be repurposed today as graphic novels, centered on sexually idolizing borderline dweeby, physically lackluster actors and celebrities like Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Bixby, and Parker Stevenson, the rather milquetoast ex-husband of Kirstie Alley of Cheers fame.

Later, Wilson would give birth to the Kimbles, a mythical mid-century American suburban family even more vacuous than those featured in iconic 1950s sitcoms and advertisements, giving them immortal life through carefully staged photographic vignettes in which he played every member of the family, male and female.

Scared witless at age 9 by The Poseidon Adventure, Wilson eventually would spend seven years working on The Purseidon Adventure, a spoof of the disaster movie classic in which, with very few exceptions, he managed to play the part of every character in the film. Of late, the unconventional artist has been devoted to his historically revisionary fantasy relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald, the hapless soul accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

Four months ago, Wilson was in the throes of moving from his lifelong Central Phoenix homestead, which he’s used either as an art studio or setting for virtually every work of art he’s ever created, to untouched 1962-style digs in West Phoenix. Given his prolific artistic production to date, it's only possible to speculate where his unpredictable art will go from here. Wherever it goes, it’s a safe bet that it will be nothing less than culturally insightful and, God knows, anything but boring.

 

Paul Wilson being Paul Wilson was, at one particular point in time, a real concern to his parents as he was growing up on a large, verdant family compound near Indian School Road and 32nd Street in Central Phoenix. Married in 1957, Roger and Joan Wilson designed and built the house their son, until April of this year, lived in most of his life. It literally was next door to his paternal grandparents’ family home — built by Roger’s father, Stan Wilson, a forestry expert who lived for a time with his family in Korea — on a pristine 10-acre parcel of now-valuable land. Stan and his first wife eventually would adopt a Korean orphan girl, thanks to the invervention of Barry Goldwater, after years of bureaucratic snafus and mountains of paperwork. Goldwater was just making his political mark in the U.S. Senate, eventually running as the Republican Party nominee for president against incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Wilson was born into the definitive suburban nuclear family of the ’60s/’70s: Mom, Dad, brother Chris, some pets, and a notable absence of psychological strife or soap opera-style drama. Drafted during his first year of college at the University of Arizona, Roger Wilson, the artist’s late father (who appears in his son’s nuclear-war- preparedness sendup as a convincing, bespectacled defense department official) was a mechanical and engineering wizard born in Albuquerque and ran a radio station in Korea at the behest of the American government. When he returned to Tucson from overseas to finish his degree, Roger met his future wife through her geologist brother.

Born in Detroit, Joan and her family moved from her birthplace to Phoenix in the early 1940s, primarily because of her brother’s health. With the move, she gave up her opportunity to attend an arts-focused high school and instead attended Phoenix Union High School, the only one in town at the time, as well as Phoenix City College, where she studied art. Leaving college, she went to work for 10 years for American Airlines as a load agent responsible for passengers from departure to destination on her assigned flights. Adept at fashion design, Joan would pass on her creative bent to son Paul.

“Paul was a very quiet child and thoughtful,” recalls Joan Wilson, now in her 80s. “As soon as he could hold a pencil, he was drawing things. He would not draw the typical house with the sun in the sky — he would draw cartoon-type figures. They might not be what you thought they were,” she says, chuckling about early drawings of pet gerbils munching green beans that came out of their ears, the beans magically morphing into rabbits.

When he was very small, Joan Wilson remembers, her son also drew paper figures that he would cut out and use as puppets.

“We had made a Dutch door to his room and carpeted it so that he could tumble and not hurt himself. As we walked down the hall back and forth, we could cast an eye over and see that everything was all right. Rog and I would sit in the hall and he’d do a puppet show on the Dutch door using that as a stage. Then he got into hand puppets, including a Halloween skeleton puppet he insisted on having, and did things with those. And he liked owls and drew them sitting in trees.”

To this day, death figures and owls still pop up unexpectedly in Paul’s paintings and videos.

According to his mother, he went through any number of periods, just like any kid usually does, and would repeatedly sketch his particular passion du jour. Paul was known to draw pictures of breaking glass as a youngster.

“They were like spider webs, very intricate,” Joan says. “We went through the Munsters; we had Munsters coming out of our ears. Then it would be some adventure character, then the Kennedys. As he got older, he would generally settle on an actual person, study them in great detail, then turn out picture after picture.”

Joan Wilson also verifies that Paul has always adored fake stuff.

“It wasn’t our home style at all; ours was a home that contained driftwood and rocks, very organic and nature-oriented. We were bird watchers and that sort of thing. But Paul loved the fake,” says his mother. “He’d go to Easley’s [Fun Shop], and he’d bring home the weirdest things. He would get these with his allowance and loved playing with them.”

During his years at Camelback High School in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the self-described nerdy artist, who was known for toting a plastic philodendron tree around campus, made his mark on the art department, where he had advanced placement because of his obvious skills.

One of his more progressive art instructors, Bob Haberer, didn’t bat an eyelash when Wilson and his art cohorts decided, for an art project, to play the part of engrossed office workers with toy dial phones, stacks of old business forms rescued from the trash, and phantom typewriters, their clacking sounds emanating from a hidden boom box. Haberer recognized an art performance when he saw one.

Wilson would resurrect this high school office experience by creating a profoundly bleak 1960s business office — often manned by visiting friends — in his front yard in the early 2000s. Called “The Front Office,” Wilson built the open-to-the-sky set with broken and discarded office equipment and furniture he would rustle up from thrift stores and garbage bins. At one point, the office was magically transformed into a crime-scene-investigation office.

Haberer was equally supportive when Wilson painted a gigantic mural of Madge the Manicurist, a long-running TV advertising spokeswoman for Palmolive Soap, on the side of the school’s art building in 1981. Though the mural caused an administrative flap and eventually was painted over, it did get glowingly featured in a Palmolive company newsletter.

It was when the quirky Kimble family appeared for a prolonged visit during Wilson’s high school stint that his parents became concerned. Joan recalls that she began to think that maybe her youngest son was too involved in fantasy and being someone other than himself.

“But he seemed to remain himself as well,” she says. “He could assume these characters and enjoy doing them when he was doing them, but when he was done with them, he’d turned them off.”

 

Lee Harvey Oswald, the “lone gunman” accused of shooting and killing President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, is not the first person who comes to mind as a sex object. Oswald’s innocence has been debated at fever pitch since the day Oswald himself was shot by Jack Ruby as he was transferred from a Dallas police station.

For Paul Wilson — born two days before the tragic events in Dallas — accusations or facts don’t dampen his mania over or his art-making of Lee Harvey Oswald, whom Wilson has researched in excruciating depth for the past seven years.

Oswald first appeared in Wilson’s work in 2007, after he had gone on an all-gay cruise to Europe on the Queen Mary II, courtesy of a very generous friend he worked with in community theater. That’s when the self-confessed technological Luddite finally got high-speed internet to replace his primitive DSL connection (the butt of many jibes) for the purpose of keeping in touch with friends he had made on the cruise.

“Everyone laughed that I was so stuck in the past. I was probably the last person in Phoenix to get high speed.”

Being stuck in the past — and playing around in it — is a large part of what Wilson’s art has always revolved around.

After getting high-speed Internet access, he came across photos of Lee Harvey Oswald online, apart from his famous mugshot.

“Something about him really appealed to me at that time,” says Wilson, who long has been obsessed with celebrity and lampoons it repeatedly in his work.

The artist’s longest-lasting preoccupation — spanning high school, college, and beyond — lionized the fairly nondescript actor Parker Stevenson, all-American ex-husband of Kirstie Alley.

Stevenson’s dubious claim to fame was starring in the highly forgettable three-year 1970s TV series The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. (For the entertaining backstory on Wilson’s art from this period, see “Idol Threat? Is Paul Wilson’s Provocative Art All Stalk and No Action?” September 22, 1993.)

Ironically (and much to his delight), Wilson’s homoerotically bent Parker Stevenson art was even covered by the country’s tawdry mouthpiece for the fan fanaticism Wilson was lampooning. In its November 16, 1993 issue, the National Enquirer quotes Kirstie Alley as fuming, “This isn’t art — it’s sickness!”

But once Wilson actually met Stevenson in person on the Phoenix set of a TV series on which Wilson managed to get cast as an extra for three days, the mystery was gone and he considered his Parker Stevenson work finished.

Years later, Wilson leveled his sights on Lee Harvey Oswald, another innocuous-looking Joe College-type guy, and started transforming collectible action figures of James Bond actor Daniel Craig into Oswald dolls.

“I called a toy store in New York to get one, and I told the woman exactly what I was going to do with it,” Wilson says. “I was afraid I’d offended her at first because she went, ‘Oh, my Gawd,’ then put her hand over the phone and shouted, ‘Sheila, look at this dawl — doesn’t this dawl look just like Lee Harvey Oswald?’ I was so happy she agreed.”

He would end up creating eight dolls, some cobbled together from different action figures, in Ken outfits he would find on eBay that were authentic to the period. Wilson will not use any props for his Lees that were made after 1963, the year of Oswald’s death. But he strays from actual events documented about the man whom many people believe was a CIA operative who had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death and was set up as the fall guy.

This would only be the beginning of Wilson’s Oswald oeuvre, which always has had a marked performance and social engagement aspect to it. Wilson notes that the first thing he had to do with his Oswald character was to “alienate him from the bad . . . My thing was to take Lee away from the Kennedys. As a kid, I loved the Kennedys and read all their books. I wanted to break down the public perception that Lee Harvey Oswald was a killer. I wasn’t eschewing it; I was acknowledging it. Yes, this happened, but this is my Lee. He lives in my alternate plane. It’s Lee Harvey Oswald, but it’s not.”

Wilson is adamant in his defense of presuming Oswald innocent: “Since he never got a trial or never got to speak, we will never really know. I feel like he’s public domain, [so] I can claim him and make him into what I want him to be. And because I’m an eccentric artist, I can do it. So if you don’t like it, fine. I didn’t intend to do it for public anything. I was just doing it for myself.”

Wilson began carrying around a Lee doll, usually adorned with a neck bell and a bone-shaped metal dog tag, everywhere he went. From drugstore to doctor’s office, gas station to restaurant, Wilson’s doll began to quietly entice unwitting people to participate in talking about his Lee Harvey Oswald, who has taken on a life of his own. In restaurants, waitstaff come up to the artist to ask how Lee is doing. He’s been known to make Wee Lee, as Wilson now calls him, perform a messy Mexican Hat dance in a bowl of soupy salsa.

 

He has taken to continually wearing a conspicuously large lapel button with Oswald’s effigy and the words “Oswald Was Cute” on his trademark vintage jacket or blazer — virtual catnip to the curious bystander in Walgreens or Fry’s. He’s made fake magazines featuring Lee as a modest centerfold hunk, which he’s taken to doctor’s appointments to unsettle or confound patients in the waiting room. He’s gone on Internet assassination-conspiracy-theory sites and “lone nutter” chat sites, where the majority of posters firmly believe in Oswald’s guilt, to ask people whether they think Oswald was handsome, much to their befuddlement, no matter what their position. He’s even used Amazon’s book-review comments to further tweak the public about his attraction to Lee, the human being, whom Wilson says is totally hot.

For the artist, Wee Lee has metamorphosed into an emblematic cross between an unattainable fantasy lover and a comfort pet. And, unlike Parker Stevenson, it’s a safe bet Wilson will never get to meet Oswald in person.

“Little Lee has become iconic,” Wilson says. “I carry him everyplace. It’s an ongoing performance, and he’s endless. When I have him, he acts as an icebreaker or conversation piece about what I am doing with him.”

With the Internet’s video community an irresistible siren’s song, the artist has used his considerable film talents to produce and post a number of digital Flip videos starring his doll versions of Lee in elaborate miniature settings, as well as the DYI epic Let’s Make a Lee Harvey Oswald Doll!

When he stumbled upon an animated avatar software program, Wilson was able to make Lee come alive on screen. From there it snowballed, leading to an all-Lee-all-the-time one-man exhibition, “predominantLEE,” in July 2011 at Flagstaff’s Axis Mundi gallery.

According to Wilson’s YouTube introduction to a video montage of that show (Wilson posts under the name of “Crashing Crockery”), the exhibit contained nothing but work inspired by Lee Harvey Oswald — dolls, dioramas, renderings, videos, montages, photographic story boards for videos Wilson plans to make, and lifesize installations, which, because of their size, have an eerie human presence to them.

“Perhaps people can look past that ‘ugly mug’ known ’round the world and see younger, happier photos that might speak otherwise — he was still a human being, after all,” Wilson says. “Nothing is all bad.

“Regardless of who and what the ‘real’ Oswald was, taking a new approach and running with it, I have created my Lee Oswald, where in my world he lives and breathes a new life as a kindhearted, slightly nerdy, but — subjectively! — very handsome pussycat. Harmless, loving, and with an affinity for bunnies and Hello Kitty, as evidenced in dozens and dozens of my video sendups to the man.”

For several years, Wilson has been able to flesh out personal details about Oswald from rarefied first-party sources: the type of clothes and aftershave Oswald usually wore, the distribution of body hair on his chest, the fact that he never smoked or drank, that his favorite soda was Dr Pepper, and that he liked po’ boy sandwiches, brownies, cheese and crackers, dogs, kids, and collecting stamps. These are the nuggets Wilson digs for to incorporate into his work. Via a telephone call, the artist found out from Oswald’s older brother, Robert, that the purported killer of JFK had blue eyes and medium-brown hair.

Judyth Vary Baker, author of Me and Lee: How I Came to Know, Love and Lose Lee Harvey Oswald (2011), a heavily documented but highly controversial book about her intimate relationship with Oswald during the last six months of his life in New Orleans, was, and continues to be, another critical source of information.  She first saw Wilson’s video work on YouTube.

Vary Baker says she “laughed [and] thought it was hilarious.” In an e-mail to New Times, Vary Baker notes she contacted Wilson through YouTube to tell him Lee wasn’t gay and that, though he was raised in New Orleans, he was very progressive and open-minded. “Lee would not ostracize gays and some thought he might be gay,” she writes.

She also revealed that Oswald had a wonderful sense of humor and probably would get a kick out of what Wilson was doing. From there, the artist and author developed an online friendship that continues to this day.

“I thought [Paul Wilson] was not only clever, original, and talented [but also] is an artist who opens doors to the past and connects it to today in a way that everyone can relate to,” writes Vary Baker, who herself is a visual artist.

“He brings the ’50s and ’60s alive, helping the present generation to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the iconic and cultural elements in our society that were developing and emerged at that period . . . Paul offers a non-stereotypical approach to a demonized individual who, despite media pronouncements, was a complex, intelligent man who did not kill the president — and said so.”

 

Wilson’s Lee Harvey Oswald work actually made its museum debut fortuitously via a Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition, “People’s Biennial,” which traveled to various cultural institutions around the country from 2010 to 2012. Curated by Jens Hoffman and Harrell Fletcher for Independent Curators International, the exhibit was aimed at showcasing “the work of artists who operate outside the sanctioned mainstream art world.”

Interestingly, it was Paul Wilson’s old-fashioned photo album of his fictional 1950s Kimble family — replete with black pages, writing in white ink, and paper photo corners — to which the curators, who traveled around the country for a year looking for undiscovered talent, were immediately drawn.

In the early ’90s, long before the selfie had infected global society with a bad case of narcissism, the artist had created the Kimble family, consisting of preternaturally perky ’50s suburbanite father Dick, mother Dottie, son Nicky, and teen daughters Carol-Anne and Joy-Anne (with an occasional appearance by their African-American housekeeper), all of whom he parodied mercilessly through 35mm color photographs he had taken of himself made up and dressed as each family member.

Wilson’s prodigious efforts put to shame internationally acclaimed artist/photographer Cindy Sherman, who’s based a long career on photographing herself in various guises, like the subjects of Old World painting masterpieces and ambiguous ’40s film noir movies.

Each Kimble photo Wilson took of himself involved true-to-period male and female clothing, makeup (blue eye shadow was a favorite with his female characters), wigs, and props, which could involve fake food, as well as plastic dog doo and imitation upchuck that, for some inexplicable reason, were ragingly popular novelty items in the 1950s and ’60s. The artist also photographed Phoenix architectural landmarks, many of which have since gone the way of the wrecking ball, as backgrounds for his Sybil-esque productions, adding even more historical authenticity to them.

From those images, taken with an old-school single lens reflex film camera mounted on a tripod and tripped by the camera’s self-timer, he would develop elaborate photo montages from drugstore C-41 prints he would cut out with scissors and a Swiss army knife, and Scotch-tape it to mat board. Never content with that, he would have a local Alphagraphics blow up his images, to which Wilson would then add shadows and hand-color with pencils to give them a convincing, era-appropriate quality.

Wilson also made videos of his time-warped family using a clunky analog camcorder and VCR he bought after graduating college to shoot and edit his final VHS products. Some of his best video works are spoofs of ’50s-style commercials for products as disparate as Twinkies and Q-Tips, as well as spoofs on the U.S. government’s ludicrous atomic-bomb-preparedness films released at the height of the Cold War.

Wilson’s house, constructed in 1957, was the quintessential backdrop for his Kimble photos, since it was furnished with now highly collectible Midcentury Modern furniture and accessories the artist obsessively collected for years (collecting compulsion, with which the artist has been afflicted most of his life, is another theme that’s parodied in Wilson’s work). Straight out of a Ladies Home Journal from the period, the entire house appeared frozen in time. Open a kitchen cabinet and you’d find product packaging from the era, with the kitchen’s glass-front wall oven filled with luscious-looking plastic pies. Over the years, both local and national media, including HGTV, TLC, and Turner Classic Movies’ Back Story, have covered Wilson’s astonishing abode and some of his art projects.

Wilson’s Kimble family art — as well as his actual day-to-day living environment — takes direct aim at the American Dream pushed by mid-century Madison Avenue advertising hucksters selling the post-WWII goal of material comfort, enviable convenience, and modern efficiency, all shrouded by the mushroom cloud of a looming atomic war that obviously would be started by Commie Russia (“Better dead than Red” was the standard slogan in this McCarthyite red-baiting period).

Time-saving appliances and new machine-made food, such as TV dinners, were touted as the ultimate salvation for white, upper-middle-class, college-educated housewives who were supposed to find complete fulfillment in life as stay-at-home wives and mothers.

 

Not surprisingly, they never quite achieved that goal. Proto-feminist Betty Friedan famously labeled the conundrum “the problem that has no name” in her 1963 cultural critique, The Feminine Mystique. Writer Ashley Fetters notes in a review for The Atlantic Monthly examining The Feminine Mystique on its 50th anniversary that Friedan’s book never addressed lower-class people or people of color (desegregation had just been born in a blast of firehoses turned on blacks who dared to register to vote or go to whites-only schools).

And, interestingly, gays were, in the author’s opinion, the evil spawn of the feminine mystique. According to Friedan, “The feminine mystique has glorified and perpetuated the name of femininity and passive, childlike immaturity which is passed on from mother to son, as well as to daughters . . . Male homosexuality as the end point of the feminine mystique is not just artificial, a regrettable but accidental distortion of the reality it overlays: it is a sinister source of cultural contamination.”

But for Dottie Kimble, the über-stylish Kimble family matriarch, none of this poses any ethical, moral, social, or economic problem whatsoever. She’s bought into the Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best façade of American life — hook, line, and sinker. She is always dressed to the nines, even while doing housework with supposedly labor-saving appliances that never quite are, makeup perfect, hair in Aquanet suspension, a purse (another Wilson obsession) eternally dangling from her arm in whatever mise-en-scene Wilson decided to plop her and other family members.

In a miniature vignette made specifically for “People’s Biennial,” the artist used action figures of himself and Dottie Kimble fighting over Oswald. Dottie is the deus ex machina that Wilson initially employed to go back in time to Russia in 1961 to foul up real-life Marina Oswald from meeting Lee at a trade union dance and marrying the supposed American defector, whom Dottie magically spirits back to ’50s Fairdale (a nonexistent Anytown, USA, in which to live a perfect suburban life) with a Time magazine cover touting her triumphant return to American soil.

“At the time, I had to hide behind Dottie for some reason,” Wilson says. “I was definitely out, but it seemed like, well, Lee was straight and I can’t figure out how we get together, so I’m going to be Dottie and go back in time. About three years into the Lee thing, I thought, I don’t need Dottie anymore. It can be Paul and Lee. The ‘Biennial’ people were astute in saying, so, really, you felt like you could break out of the shell of having to act like a woman to get his attention.

“I finally just figured, screw it — I’m just going to be me. I’m going to be Paul Wilson, and I’m in love with and sharing my life with Lee Harvey Oswald.”

The artist's bathroom wall featuring one of his repurposed dollar

store toys into Tank and Prepared Salmon Playset.

It seems as though wherever Paul Wilson happens to be,
chaos ensues.

Todd Grossman, a friend of Wilson's since high school, recalls that, even then, Wilson could engage anyone anywhere and talk them into almost anything.

“Everything with Paul is fake and artificial,” Grossman says. “In high school, he would have these fake orgies. Everyone was clothed — not an actual orgy . . . What he wanted was for us to re-create that feel, so he’d have six people over, and it would be in his bedroom. He’d have all this material and make us say things like ‘girdle,’ ‘bras,’ and he would choreograph the whole thing like a film director . . . Then he’d start taking pictures. We would be laughing the whole time. Then we would get up and walk out of Paul’s room, and there would be his parents just sitting watching Jeopardy, and we’d say, ‘Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, we’re going to Bob’s Big Boy.’”

One of Wilson’s college art instructors, Muriel Magenta, a well-respected professor of intermedia art at Arizona State University, recalls that Wilson took her class repeatedly in the 1980s. At that time, Magenta’s students were working with time-based media, mainly video, “but we did a lot of mixed-media work. It was just on the cusp of the digital revolution, so we were doing a lot of things with VCR, VHS tapes, and analog methods of editing,” she remembers.

Magenta notes that the artist is an expert on ’50s imagery and culture. “He also likes to play, in the true sense of the way a child likes to play,” she adds. “It’s very natural; it is unaffected . . . He’s himself. He’s not trying to emulate what’s happening in the art world. He likes to pretend. He is just a child at heart.”

Sara Cochran, the former Phoenix Art Museum curator who now is associate director of SMoCA, worked closely with Wilson on a Contemporary Forum artists’ grant exhibition mounted in 2013 that featured Lee Harvey Oswald dioramas at Phoenix Art Museum.

“He was doing this incredibly sophisticated play,” Cochran says. “I was so impressed by the way he talked about Wee Harvey Oswald and his relationship to that doll. He realized that it was a talisman, a small inanimate object, but also that it was an art project and an emotionally satisfying part of his life.”

Cochran theorizes that “Paul Wilson may be the reincarnation of Loki, the mischief-making Norse god of hope, positive and negative. He is the jester; he is the trickster. Paul Wilson, in his lovely suit and lovely bow tie, is a tornado of destruction and joy.”

Cochran also makes it clear that there is nothing mean-spirited in Wilson’s work. “Paul is a witness to our foibles, but there is a gentleness to it because he knows his own foibles. The mirror he holds up is not one of ridicule. I also think that Paul’s work about his relationship with Lee deals with the redemptive power of love. In a very profound way, Paul’s interest in Lee, outside of the usual historical issues, is about how love can forgive.”

Robrt Pela, owner of R. Pela Contemporary Arts on McDowell (and a longtime New Times contributor), has curated two Wilson exhibitions, “My Life with Lee Harvey Oswald” at Willo North and “I Am Not Myself” in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

“I Am Not Myself” highlighted previously unshown work: photos of Wilson characters created out of whole cloth, like Kim Chi the Grating Geisha and Ginny the Aging Southern Belle Broad, and bizarre, giggle-worthy takeoffs on dollar store toys, like Bridal Spider Dress-Up Set, C.B., CD, DVD, I.V. and V.D. Play Activity Set (“not for the children of 3 years of age”) and Tank and Prepared Salmon Playset. Since Lee obviously could not be left out in the proverbial cold, the exhibit included Wilson’s doctored photos and paintings depicting Wee Lee’s (read Paul Wilson’s) fictional adventures as a lifelong collector of vintage toasters, which also were on display with the artwork.

Pela, who has been close friends with Wilson since 1992, divulges that “Paul is not making artwork to be shown; he’s not making it for you or me or his fans. It’s like when you’re trying to get a rash off your body — only for him, it’s pleasurable, rash or not. He’s making a thing he wants to exist in the world real. And the only way he can do it is making it 2- or 3D.”

Pela adds, “Paul never does anything in his career or his life that says, in a larger sense, this will get me some attention. Yet, that’s the response he gets — the response when he knocks something over, or falls,” he adds, referring to Wilson’s gleeful years-old habit of taking pratfalls in public and usually eliciting compassionate, concerned responses from unsuspecting passersby — the essence of social-engagement art.

It’s the end of an exceptional era.

At 50, Paul Wilson finally packed up his home’s ample contents for the move across town. At the time he left, the sprawling ranch-style house built by his parents looked more like the Bates Motel in Psycho, obscured from the street by a rangy, overgrown 20-foot oleander hedge. A dilapidated antique dollhouse stood as a focal point of the tree-shaded front yard, which for months was sucked up by a huge blue dumpster and strange debris, like broken china, play money, New Year’s blowers and party hats, all laced with a generous sprinkling of ever-present confetti and glitter. Not to mention the box of recyclables he left as “treats” on his porch for Halloween trick-or-treaters last year.

The house and yard Wilson repeatedly used as a backdrop for a thousand and one art projects, which itself had become a living work of art, was unceremoniously bulldozed the day after Wilson’s departure. Forever eradicated to make way for a condo complex was the household stage set of The Purseidon Adventure, which took from 1995 to 2002, on and off, to finish. His version abounds with sight gags, its fated ship being swallowed by a gigantic purse, instead of being tipped over by a tidal wave, as in the original. Before escaping from death, Wilson’s personae dramatis are confronted by the horrifying social scourges of the ’70s — happy faces, fondue pots, macrame crafts, and an insidious appliance palette of avocado green, harvest gold, and burnt orange.

The original Hollywood blockbuster, starring a very ham-and-cheesy Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, and Shelley Winters, had inspired Wilson to throw Poseidon parties in his carport on New Year’s Eve in high school, during which the chaotic scene in which the Poseidon is overturned was re-enacted by partygoers, who thoroughly trashed the sets he would laboriously make for each party.

In The Purseidon Adventure, he played all roles (except in the ballroom capsize scene), filming himself against elaborate painted canvas backdrops and handmade props set up in his carport and back patio. Occasionally, he was able to shanghai a willing friend into shooting him in a scene. Grossman, a gymnast at the time, recalls having to do a handstand on a table with Wilson shooting upside down to create the effect of a passenger dangling from a table bolted to what had become the ceiling.

The persistent artist was still shooting and editing with an analog camcorder and VCR at the time. The final product, posted on YouTube in eight 10-minute episodes, was untouched by Photoshop or any other software, which makes it all the more remarkable. “I spent more on confetti for the movie than I did on technical equipment,” he notes. (See “Artist Overboard” by Dewey Webb, August 20, 1998, for a behind-the-scenes look at how “Purseidon” was made.)

At the bittersweet end, Wilson’s house was stuffed with so many things he’d collected and used for making art that knocking something over was inevitable. The living room, with its biomorphic coffee table, was piled to the rafters with remnants of miniature dioramas, doll furniture, Sputnik sculptures, atomic bomb-themed décor, and Wee Lee-related art.

The dining room had transmuted into a virtual forest of full-size Lee Harvey Oswald stand-ups amid tiki-type collectibles, while the master bedroom, designed to look like a wood-paneled ship’s cabin on a luxury liner from the 1940s, was crammed with old luggage, cameras, plastic flowers and trees, an Art Deco dressing table overflowing with jewelry, and two up-lighted port holes.

As for the kitchen, its last days were home to fake ashtrays overflowing with custom-made cigarette props, faux fruit-and-Jell-O molds, more dioramas, and three-foot plastic roaches skittering on the floor amid puddles of plastic vomit, crawling on every imaginable vertical surface and even clinging to the ceiling.

With no exhibitions on the immediate horizon, he looks forward to unpacking boxes of stuff that, for a time, took up 12 storage spaces before they were moved to the new house. He’s also found out that his new 1962 west-side manse, even more spacious than what he left behind, was the very place in which a college friend had grown up.

To date, Wilson’s re-created an even more pristinely staged version of his living room from the old house, and his new/old kitchen cupboards are filling up quickly with vintage foodstuffs and period kitchenware. He’s also working on turning a back bedroom into a half-size “studio apartment” for a half-size Wee Lee he’s just finished, complete with small-scale furniture, decorative accessories, and a kitchenette whose refrigerator is stocked with small-scale food items made, of course, before 1963.

New house, new inspiration — it'll be interesting to see what the artist’s move will eventually produce. It’s a tough act to follow, but Paul Wilson’s already proved repeatedly that he’s up to the task.

 

Photographs by Paul Wilson, Kathleen Vanesian, and Evie Carpenter

"Inside Paul Wilson" video by Evie Carpenter

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1 comments
BrekanArts
BrekanArts

I loved Paul Wilson's movies at the Alwun House back in the 1990's.  I'm so happy Kathleen and the New Times are giving him proper credit!   Great stuff.  Very Kitch.  Definately inspired by John Waters!