Thornton Willis and James O. Clark
Elizabeth Harris Gallery
November 16–December 22, 2006
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Thornton Willis was making paintings of monolithic, geometric forms. These early works were characterized by dominating wedge shapes with worked surfaces and rough-hewn edges—the telltale signs of angsty Abstract Expressionist process. “Wedges,” as they’ve come to be called, were his signature motif, and Willis was often grouped with other noted Post-Minimalist artists of his generation such as Elizabeth Murray, Brice Marden, and Richard Serra. He was included in the 1984 MOMA exhibition, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” but shortly afterward Willis dropped off the radar, showing irregularly here and there and keeping a low profile. In this current exhibition, his first solo showing in over a decade, some things have changed and some haven’t.
Gone now are the macho minimal monoliths. Instead, we are given new paintings (the majority done in the last year) composed of linear networks of intersecting triangles, graphically outlined and intensely hued. The compositions are developed “intuitively,” as Willis has remarked, which is evidenced by the way the surfaces are worked with painterly directness, creating a colored cacophony of wedges that both suggest and negate volume. These are charmingly formal images that slip in and out of focus, at times resembling broken windowpanes and at others tumbling Jenga towers, if, that is, the Jenga pieces were shaped like wedges. They show a painter committed to his craft and to a mode of working—confronting the blank canvas and figuring his way through—as generations of American abstract painters have done before him.
They also show a painter stuck in a single way of making an image. There is a sameness to these paintings that seem at odds with Willis’s claim, printed in the gallery press release, that American abstract painting is “the most advanced means of visual expression available to a free society.” If that’s the case, I wonder why every manifestation of visual expression in this exhibition looks essentially the same. Restraint, control, and sameness are the antithesis of freedom. By walking away from his big wedges Willis has found a way to make appealing abstractions, humble and competent in their aesthetic attitude. This is an exercise of freedom that makes sense. What doesn’t jibe is the lofty claim of advanced visual expression. For that I’m afraid we’ll have to look elsewhere. —Craig Olson
James O. Clark
There Is Nothing Blue Under The Sun
Elizabeth Harris Gallery
November 16–December 22, 2006
What happened to James Clark’s oddball otherworldly constructions? Why does it feel like the polite pharmacist has replaced the mad scientist? Clark’s been around for a long time, showing since the 70’s. He’s also about as decorated as they come, with an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a Guggenheim, a couple of National Endowments for the Arts awards, and more honorariums than Senator Beauregard Claghorn had Dixie cups.
For the past three decades Clark has been concocting bizarre, experimental sculptures that pushed the limits of the medium with his particular use of “discarded” or “non-art” materials, employing everything from urinals and lace pillows to fiber-optic cables and water. He refused to buy into the chic appraisals and theories of his peers working with similar objects, like the tired critique of consumer culture. He stood alone in his uncanny laboratory of wonders and we loved him for it. In fact, just last year at the Edward Thorp Gallery’s In Material exhibition, Clark had a powerful presence with his “Mellow Yellow” sculpture, a long neon tube wrapped in what looked like a fishnet stocking encased inside an inflatable tube, the whole thing activating as you approach by means of a motion sensor. It would inflate and wiggle while glowing an intense piss yellow. It was sexy and funny and left me wanting more.
Now, for his most recent exhibition, he’s given us a disappointing smattering of conservatively proportioned metal and neon wall sculptures and a couple of fiber optic cables with magnets. All the pieces have titles with allusions to philosophy and literature. One piece is called “Voltaire,” another “Metamorphosis.” All of the wall sculptures look essentially the same—small white crumpled sheets of metal with glowing blue edges. They resemble chunks of a John Chamberlain sculpture, painted over with white enamel and shrunk down to the proportion of a human head, decorated with delicate flourishes of a thin blue wire (“el wire” as it’s known in the computer and technology trade). The edges of these pieces are adorned with illuminating blue filaments encased within clear, flexible tubing. The only real difference among these works is the varying heights at which they’re artfully hung.
The other piece in the exhibition, titled “Tralfamadorian” (yes, from Vonnegut’s book), is made of two small magnets each attached to a strand of intensely glowing blue electroluminescent wire, one attached to the ceiling, the other to the floor so the magnets pull at each other but never touch. The overall environment here feels tacky and dull— aesthetic qualities I usually find intriguing—but when presented in such a polite and conservative manner they remind me less of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and more of the unbearable Blue Light Special.
Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
James Brooks: Rendez-vous Paintings 1972–1983By Robert C. Morgan
JUL-AUG 2022 | ArtSeen
Although I have encountered the paintings of James Brooks sporadically in various group exhibitions focused on Abstract Expressionism, it has been relatively rare to encounter his works shown together in a context all their own. As such, the collection of works included in the current exhibition from the 1970s and early eighties suggest a somewhat timely occasion, providing the uncommon opportunity to understand Brooks solely through his own work and ideas.
Gordon Matta-Clark & Pope.L: Impossible FailuresBy Lee Ann Norman
MARCH 2023 | ArtSeen
In Impossible Failures, director Ebony L. Haynes focuses on works by Gordon Matta-Clark and Pope.L that explore the social conditions of space and how creative experimentation might help us to dream of a world that can hold the tension inherent in such social relationships.
Thornton Willis: A Painting Survey, Six Decades:
By Tom McGlynn
MAY 2022 | ArtSeen
Thornton Willis prefers the direct approach to painting. His constructive sensibility, a preoccupation with the architecture of space, lays out the basic proposition that painting is a vital projection of actual line, shape, and color. This keeping it simple makes his paintings eminently accessible to the viewer, whom he addresses as an existential equal.
Leiko Ikemura: Anima Alma - Works 19812022By Jonathan Goodman
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
Born in Japan, Leiko Ikemura left for Spain to study language and art before moving to Switzerland and eventually to Germany, where she currently works. An artist of subtle feminist assertion, Ikemura has chosen in most paintings to represent women and in some instances children. Ikemura is well known in Europe and has shown extensively there, but this is her first exhibition in America. Her painting style tends to be diffuse and sensuous, in a manner not so distant from the art of someone like Marlene Dumas. Her training directed her toward a compelling mixture of figuration bordering on abstraction, even when she is rendering people.