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.