Los Angeles

Jay Willis

Hank Baum Gallery

Fifteen years ago painting hit a peak and, to reverse the metaphor, it’s been trying to dig itself out of a hole ever since. For a while, in the early sixties, it struggled a couple of rungs up on the ladder out; Frank Stella, et al, discovered, it appeared, a way out of the obligatory featherbed of brushstrokes: pictures coated with flat bands of color bent to fit specially carpentered exotic/systemic formats. But, advancing into the opening pages of that catalog-to-be, “Painting of the Seventies,” the whole enterprise is melting again into little puddles of acrylic Romance and the oubliettes of serious, funk anticraftsmanship; the edges are unraveling and, in my opinion, things are becoming healthy again. But for a time, the thick attendance of formula, How to Paint a Neat Clean Contemporary Picture, slowed everything into Jell-O molds. Maybe it has to be that way: bursts of real creativity followed by (relatively) quiescent long afternoons of safe refinement and hothouse “new movements.” Although I draw my conclusion from painting which, as everyone knows, has its own peculiar problems, the same cycle seems to be descending upon sculpture.

A couple of years ago, Phil Leider succinctly noted that Richard Serra found “nobody home” in sculpture and took over the joint with a rapid (for sculpture, for dealing with heavy materials, for the kind of art time we were used to) string of leaning, falling, pinioned, sawed and stacked works. Naturally, Serra’s rubric was snapped up by battalions of lesser sculptors and, ever since, we’ve been buried beneath an Avalanche of phenomenologically “honest” material combos and expositions—wire and silk, sand and glass, cinder blocks and latex, plaster and carpet, ad infinitum. Now, rigidity—in material and method—is again creeping into the House of Sculpture (it was, I recall, given a probationary boot when someone posed the deadly question, “But why does a sculpture always have to be hard?”). Sculpture, if Jay Willis’ show is any measure, is entering its own fallow “post-painterly abstraction.” Willis is, to be sure, a decent artist: technically competent, a sharp designer, up on what’s been done and what hasn’t, and with an eye for offbeat in a level proximate to the surface. But, and I admittedly don’t know quite how to put this, Willis’ sculptures look like assembled puzzles whose parts derive from a collection of disturbingly familiar inventories.

The pieces in the show are of three distinct types: floor pieces with rigid components exclusively, floor pieces with discs and cable, and wall pieces with discs and cable. The first sort are made with hinged, rectilinear, irregular, perforated slabs of steel occasionally propped by threaded, tubular Ls; the slabs are anodized, garish, quietly teeth-rattling acidic colors, and the pieces, looking heavier than hell, run about six or seven feet in the biggest dimension. Sculptors have made the Mephistophelian discovery of good looks, just as painters, with rollers, duck, and “krilik,” stumbled onto (or into) it not long ago; colored steel, drilled holes, emphatically contrasted parts, and that great art term coined by the State Department, a “low profile,” all look good. Design isn’t the problem, it’s in the sense of the works, that wants it both ways: reason and caprice. The hinges, the slabs, the Ls in screw holes, the natural floor postures are endemic to the no-bullshit attitude of Smith-Caro-Serra esthetics which, pursued to their ends with passion, can be turned into poetry. But Willis counterbalances with the sculptural equivalent of plexi frames: arbitrary colors, shapes, and a cute not-quite system to his little drilled cylinders, and the pieces are to that degree unsuccessful. The wall works, in either fifteen-to-twenty-foot gently sagging horizontals, or six-by-nine-foot grids, comprise inch-thick discs, flat against or parallel to the wall, connected by lengths of plastic-coated cable; symptomatically, the cable is key. Finished at the ends with mettal terminals, as if it did something (like carry electricity) besides holding the sculpture together, it lends the pieces a suffocating veneer of shop craft. Surely, more is right with Willis’ sculpture than wrong with it; otherwise those specific, gnawing shortcomings wouldn’t stand out. Moreover, sculpture is at the moment laid bare; the devices of process, the pseudo-obsessive finish of some minimal, and the awry post-and-lintels and stark connections of Caro-ish stuff are every one so thoroughly exploited that it must seem, aside from symbology, there ain’t nowhere to go. Besides, it looks nice as is. But the business of great artists has always been to transcend, for interior not exterior reasons, what they’ve been esthetically “born” into. It’s gonna be awfully tough for the next great sculptor.

Peter Plagens