Ray Wetzel stands beside his self-portrait, Grade 8, at The Walnut Gallery.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
After years of nurturing fellow artists, designing shows and coordinating exhibits, Gadsden Museum of Art Curator Ray Wetzel is debuting something of his own. Beginning Friday, July 16, The Walnut Gallery will host Wetzel’s exhibition Shame-Based Man.
With a triumphant collection of paintings, interactive pieces and video, Wetzel’s reflective exhibition Shame-Based Man details a cathartic personal journey. Pertinent in its hopeful message of overcoming shame, Shame-Based Man encourages audiences to release past disappointments, trade befuddled former doubts for resolute clarity and embrace the promise of the present, while traveling toward a brighter future.
Shame-Based Man portrays a powerful narrative rooted in Wetzel’s childhood, incapsulating reoccurring themes, moments and emotions that emerge as significant throughout his life. A precocious and imaginative child, Wetzel sometimes struggled with communication, finding little interest in athletics or academics. His grandmother, an educator, recognized his creative mind and suggested he try painting lessons as an outlet for expression.
In painting Wetzel discovered his voice, gaining the opportunity to portray his thoughts on canvas for others to witness – even if what they gleam differs from his original intention. His love for painting manifested into a Bachelor of Arts in Painting from Jacksonville State University, where he also served as the coordinator for a student gallery, Hammond Hall. Working as an independent studio artist, Wetzel volunteered and trained at a variety of institutions throughout the Southeast before accepting his current position as curator for the GMA.
Throughout the course of his artistic career, Wetzel curated nine of his own personal solo shows, participating in over 40 group shows and designing countless exhibitions for fellow artists. Shame-Based Man is Wetzel’s first solo show following a three-year hiatus.
Wetzel’s inspiration for Shame-Based Man arose a year ago, on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world collectively battled isolation, doubt and distress, Wetzel experienced a tumultuous period in his personal life. The comfortable stagnancy of his patterned life abruptly shattered into an upheaval of everything he once settled into, and Wetzel found himself weathering a turbulent change. The end of relationships, illness and years of repressed emotion drifted to the surface, causing Wetzel to peer into his reflection and address the difficult and unexpected situations that so many individuals face.
While Wetzel experienced personal doubt and depression during this transitional period in his life, he discovered parallels between his past and present. Familial influences, relatives who affected his perception of himself in relation to others, memories from his adolescence and crucial relationships all impacted Wetzel, who began a process of self-analysis. A nudge from friend and Walnut Gallery Director Mario Gallardo, who suggested Wetzel host a show to work through these issues, set Wetzel on path toward reconciliation.
“Shows are how I’ve communicated in the past,” said Wetzel. “Anytime I was ever going through something, I’d just try to do a show. Shame-Based Man is me at my worst meeting me at my best. It’s this thing of even though that was something really hard I was through and it happened all at once, the world was going through something shared too.”
“These [paintings] are little key points of my life that make up me. Any one of these paintings, anybody can come up and tell a story about any one of the versions of me [on display]. [I chose the key points by] the repetition of them. Some of the memories aren’t as prominent as others, but it was the ones that kept creeping up in my brain.”
Wetzel labored for a year and six months to complete Shame-Based Man, which shares its namesake with an album title from Bruce McCulloch, a member of Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. Each painting in Wetzel’s show, which portrays a significant experience or motif in his life, coincides with a track on the album, which Wetzel purchased as pre-teen.
Wetzel sifted through piles of old photographs to select source material for his paintings, which often include family members. In his painting Our Love, Wetzel reimagines a black-and-white photo of his grandfather pointing as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, with a lineage of relatives appearing in the background. As the linchpin in Wetzel’s family, his grandfather was instrumental in holding the family together.
After his grandfather’s death, Wetzel shared that his family seemed to disintegrate – a theme he explores in Not Happy, which revisits a family photograph where a person is missing and studies Wetzel’s own aversion to photographs. He discovered photos where people were cut out, something his great grandmother would do for an unknown reason. One photocopied instance includes a note she scribbled, “divorces and cemeteries.” Wetzel recognized that photograph as another turning point in his family, the last moment when all his relatives were together before relationships crumbled and loved ones passed away.
“Shame-Based Man talks about the things you carry with you,” said Wetzel. “You have this weird legacy of people you’ve never met with your family history, then you have your personal history. I merged the two [for the show], kind of like baggage I’m carrying throughout time.”
Answering Machine, which resides directly across from Grade 8 (a self-portrait depicting several versions of Wetzel) details how individuals form ideas of other people in their minds, projecting those preconceived perceptions onto others. With the paintings gazing at one another across the gallery, Answering Machine conveys three women, each with a different face, who represent one person. The intentional placement of the two paintings in opposition to one another conveys that while the woman in Answering Machine is a three-dimensional person, the image onlookers craft of her is a two-dimensional thought that only exists in their mind – not a true representation of who she is as a person, but a judgement of her made by another person.
Wetzel’s art for Shame-Based Man is not polished, but expounds layer upon layer to create dimension, overlapping images. Painting free-hand, Wetzel used a simple combination of blue, yellow, green and red to develop his artwork. His love of primary colors manifests in his work, which burst with bold shades and hues. His relaxed technique leaves edges rough and flawed, another testament to the underlying meaning that exists within each painting: physical and emotional healing is a process, imperfect and messy at times, but peaceful in its completion.
“I’m trained to paint realistically, but I’m so uninterested in that,” said Wetzel. “I just kind of deviate from it all the time. That’s where the texture comes in. The ones with texture are premeditated, because it takes so long for that texture to build and dry. I’m using bedsheets on these too, you can see a floral pattern on one. If you get up close, you can see leaves and biodegradable things. I found as leaves biodegrade, it changes my colors and they get more of a richness. There are also little notes I wrote to myself that I hid in the paintings, ideas I had.”
Wetzel noted that while Shame-Based Man served as a therapeutic outlet for him to grow as a person and overcome struggles, he learned important lessons regarding himself throughout its unfolding. He discovered he was much stronger than he once imagined, and that it is not weakness to ask for help. Rather than try to go through everything internally, or feel guilt when asking for help, he now feels that power resides in support from friends. He discussed the importance of mental health, noting that counseling and therapy sessions also aided in his improvement, as well as taking trips for himself to find solace, clarity and acceptance.
As Shame-Based Man depicts Wetzel’s personal voyage, it mirrors the same experiences so many individuals face – representing that while life might become difficult, regaining healing and happiness are possible, and a more joyful tomorrow awaits. Wetzel shared his hope for audiences who attend the show, which will run throughout August.
“There’s a certain catharsis that I’m starting to feel,” said Wetzel. “This show isn’t about me getting my big break…this is purely so I can get this out, to feel better about myself. That’s the reward. A lot of these things that we’re going through we put other labels on – anxiety or fear – but it’s just shame. We don’t want to be ashamed. It’s this selfish, ugly part of ourselves that go through this…stuff from high school, our past embarrassments, you feel ashamed and make excuses for it. [Shame makes us] feel bad about ourselves. I want people to know that they can let go, and everything is going to be fine.”
The reception for Shame-Based Man is Friday, July 16 from 6 to 8 p.m. at The Walnut Gallery, located at 806 Walnut Street in Gadsden.