The New York abstract painter Thornton Willis found early success in the 1970s with large, compositionally simple but psychologically charged paintings of wedge and chevron shapes intruding upon the canvas from above or below. His works steadily became more elaborate over time, and in recent years have reached an origami-of-the-gods complexity. A few great ones are on view alongside James Little's work at Sideshow on Bedford Street in Williamsburg, through Apr. 25.
They are big -- eight by six feet -- and the best of them are chiming planes of vibrant color in dynamic asymmetry that yields a frontal, theatrical space. In works like Geomatrix and Mismatch, ever-smaller subdivisions of the paintings surface are arranged around an interior rectangle the same proportions as the canvas. The color relationships in this interior section are punchier because there Willis dispenses with his heavy outline; hues abut, heightening chromatic contrasts and shoving the pictorial space into another realm. The artist uses a variety of grays to let in some air, inflating his pinks and yellow-greens and giving his primary and secondary colors room to breathe.
On the other hand, Little (fresh from a knock-out solo outing at G. R. N'Namdi in Chelsea) makes airless, seamless, uniformly scraped-over paintings. In these sizable works, slim wedges of flat crayola colors, mixed with wax and applied like plaster, stretch from top to bottom. Classic figure/ground ambiguity is involved, so a triangle of saturated lawn-green might alternately suggest form -- hill, pine tree, dunce cap -- and void. Thus the paintings spiky, aggressive energy results from design decisions rather than mark-making. They are both hot and cool.
The show is called "Raising the Bar," and it seems to be director Rich Temperio's challenge to the neighborhoods other galleries to aim a little higher. If youre as tired as I am of wee, wan drawings pinned to the gallery wall like notes to a roommate, don't miss it. Willis's prices top off at $65,000; Little's major canvasses come in at $35,000
While bigger is better for both Willis and Little, the more compact of Margaret Neill's oil-on-canvas paintings, now on view at Metaphor Contemporary Art on Atlantic Avenue through May 1, usually pack a greater punch. Neill is gifted with a probing painterly intelligence, and a knack for formal drama. In Repossess, undulating, overlapping translucent bands and bulbous shapes in pinks, blues and greens are invaded from the top left by a dark blob, while in Skew, magenta scraped over lime green yields a chromatic hybrid that defies naming.
In the small gouaches on view, the artist appears especially at ease, and at her most inventive. Reflecting the artist's growing following, prices for the oils range upward to $6,500. The show, called "Shift," is up through May 1. On view in the gallery's mezzanine space are watercolors and two small oil paintings by Yvonne Estrada, whose work is a highlight of "Out of Bounds," a show of landscape-derived installations at Wave Hill in the Bronx.
Julian Montague is a very clever, slightly loony young man from Buffalo with a keen interest in distortion, whose solo show, "Taxonomies," is on view at Black + White Gallery on Driggs Avenue, through Apr. 25. In his Stray Shopping Cart Project, he has meticulously documented that universal yet oddly invisible feature of modern life, in large color photographs augmented by text and keyed to an exhaustive typological chart, establishing a cataloguing system through which they may, at last, be better understood.
In the chart, "False Strays" are helpfully distinguished from "True Strays," and these classes are subdivided into numerous types, illustrated by photos of specimens in the field, in Buffalo, Hartford, and other Northeastern cities. Its a daunting task; imagine the difficulty of discerning, for example, between B/10: Plow Crush and B/13: Complex Vandalism. Binders holding dozens of photos of additional examples are available for perusal.
In an earlier form, Montague's project was seen at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in his hometown. The artist regards the project as ongoing, and hopes to bring it to the West Coast. Another promising body of work involves the representation of insects; both series, in small editions, are priced under $2,000.
Dont read the next two paragraphs if you intend to see the show at Black & White. In the gallery's outdoor space, Tom Kotik shows an "interactive sculpture" that appears at first to be nothing more than an aggressively boring brown box made of high-density fiberboard, looking quite at home in the bland, bricked-in yard. At close range, a gentle, rhythmic murmur is perceptible. The persistent viewer discovers that the monolith houses a small, soundproof box, which houses a smaller soundproof box, which houses a pair of speakers pumping high-energy rock & roll at blaring, call-the-cops volume.
The music is by the artist's own band. The sculpture is called OUT (maximum volume) and it's very funny, a little shocking, and holds up surprisingly well to repeated viewings (or listenings). It reminded us of those expressionless iPod wearers, on the subway or in line at the bodega, who suffer unwittingly from sonic leakage.
There are more laughs around the corner, at Pierogi on North 9th Street, where Jim Torok scrutinizes, in a winning, comic-strip style, the sometimes whimsical, often emotionally charged intersection of his public and private life. The personal is political for Torok; the large drawing Artists Are Great limns the uneasy regard in which the creative class is held in modern America.
The artist reserves the bulk of his ire for the misinformed, deluded working-class voters who acted against their own economic interests in the 2004 Presidential election, in Thanks A Lot, Fuckheads. Dont let the artists big-nosed alter ego fool you -- the guy can draw. His unlabored rendering of a mock-earnest, huckstering Bush in Why So Fucking Mean? is most impressive. The show comes down Apr. 18; allow extra time to see it, as theres a lot to read. Drawings, in ink on paper and about 22 x 30 inches, are $4,500; a few acrylic-on-panel paintings, less complex graphically but exuding self-doubt, are $10,000.
The increasingly visible curator David Gibson has organized "Culture Vulture," a group show at Jack the Pelican, on Driggs, featuring artists who lift themes or motifs from foreign frames of reference -- or wish themselves into one. Gibsons eye is expert, and the shows he puts together hum with a vibration between and among works. In "Culture Vulture" he's not just illustrating his thesis, hes opening up the range of reference of every work involved.
Orientalism is the rule in the gallery's back room, where Gae Savannah's tiered, plastic-and-fabric, lamp-topped construction, Nyass, engages with Amie Cunningham's 13th Century Christian Relic, which reconfigures a devotional object -- a prayer blanket? -- in painted, wired-together plywood slats, and Suspended Arabesque, a knot-like, hanging mass of strung beads by Katherine Daniels.
Out front, the industrial facility as a curiously fascinating alien environment is explored by Cindy Towers, who contributes Suct, a jungle of pipes, tubes, ducts and dials beautifully painted in a loose, semi-illustrative manner in pasty tints with flashes of primaries. Turns out it's the engine room of an aircraft carrier. Diana Puntar mixes the argot of formalist abstraction with domestic surface treatments in her floor sculpture, Dual Disturbances, in laminated plywood and plastic and aluminum veneers: Anthony Caro meets Bob Vila. (Puntar's solo outing at Participant on Rivington Street in Manhattan continues through Apr. 24.) Prices are generally in the $2,000 to $6,000 range; the show is up through May 1.
Momenta Art kingpin Eric Heist occupies Schroeder Romero through May 2. Called "Travel Agents," the show recasts the gallery space as a kind of travel agency, with the central conceit likening U.S. military intervention overseas to invading tourists. Custom-made commercial posters touting picturesque locales around the world are emblazoned with the names of U.S. operations there: Silent Promise, Infinite Reach, Guardian Retrieval. And a collection of postcards, organized by continent, is labeled with quotes from first-hand accounts of hideous atrocities visited upon the local populations by invading forces, gleaned from books by Gore Vidal, Dith Pran, Chris Hedges and others.
Okay, it's a bit of a downer. But it's also an uncommonly well-integrated use of a wide variety of media: video, sculpture, photography, text and bulletin boards. Even though theyre based on photos, were partial to the drawings, done in pencil and measuring about 30 x 24 inches. Scenes of wartime devastation in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere, closely cropped and devoid of people, are reduced to a hazy, velvety graphite sheen. Prices for the works range from $1,200 to $5,500; those drawings are $1,600 each.
Installation gets its due this month at Sarah Bowen Gallery on North 6th Street, where Caroline Cox (co-founder and co-director of the defunct Flipside Gallery, and alumna of the Brooklyn Museum's 1997 borough survey, "Current Undercurrent") shows the room-filling 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky.
The work consists of a great many plastic mesh bags containing glass lenses or balls, dangling from the ceiling by means of elaborate wire armatures and reflected in a pool of convex mirrors arranged on the floor beneath. It's serene and ethereal -- until the gallerys hot-air blower kicks in and parts of it spin frantically. The show also includes Cox's site-specific wall works in industrial plastics, as well as photos of the installation.
In the back room, Brooklynite Meredith Allen shows close-up photographs of fuzzy baby animals wrapped in zip-lock bags. These ducks, bunnies and bears are largely obscured by the milky plastic with its glistening highlights, and shot against solid background colors -- naptime blankets, apparently -- with a narrow depth of field.
They're pathetic, of course, but a little monstrous, too. The same technique is used by food-magazine photographers to make cookies look the size of Frisbees. In editions of five, these dry pigment prints are $800 each. Allens take on curdled cuteness is called "Forever," and extends a theme familiar from her widely-seen "Ice Pops" series, in which melting Popsicles, possibly wielded in the photographers free hand, are shot in harsh light against blurry landscapes. Both shows run through May 1.
Also noted: in a considerable loss to the neighborhood, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, Williamsburg's redoubt of Old World civility since the fall of 2001, relocates to Chelsea. Priska's shows by Rachel Selekman, Joyce Kim and Michael Scoggins are among the most memorable in recent Williamsburg history.
Meanwhile, two new galleries have recently landed in the neighborhood. Chicago native Melissa Schubeck resituates Joymore to Grand Street, steps from the Open Ground collective and the always-interesting Parker's Box. LMAK Projects, directed by Louky Keijsers, began mounting shows in its Chelsea space just last year and recently debuted a Williamsburg satellite with an artist who chewed through the gallerys sheetrock wall. The Times ate it up, but the following show was more our speed: Irish artist Katie Holten filled the compact space with hanging macram puffs and fronds in a rainbow of colors. Next door to LMAK on North Sixth Street is Southfirst, where the Hvard Homstvedt show is selling fast. . . .
Why should developers have all the fun? Construction is ubiquitous in Williamsburg these days, and out on Olive Street, Morsel picks up the theme in a group show called "Collapsing Matter." Particularly well-wrought are paintings exploring extremes of scale by Mark Masyga, and Isidro Blasco's Basement, a small version of his signature practice of assembling cut-up C-prints at eccentric angles on elaborate wood-slat armatures.
Minus Space was launched as a nonprofit, online curatorial project in August 2003 by Brooklyn artists Matthew Deleget and Rosanna Martinez, and gradually developed into a showcase for dozens of artists whose work the site characterizes as "reductive and concept-based." Now, Minus Space is looking for a bricks-and-mortar venue somewhere in Brooklyn, and they like Atlantic Avenue. The stable is New York-centric, though increasingly international in scope. By the way, works by founders Deleget and Martinez were included in "All the Numbers I Know," curated last fall by Meridith McNeal for Rotunda in Brooklyn Heights.
For reliably tasty tavern-style fare we like Northside institution Mugs Ale House, on Bedford at North 11th Street, followed by a restorative schpatzir through nearby McCarren Park.
Coming soon: DUMBO redux.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.