New York

John Willenbecher

Hamilton Gallery

John Willenbecher’s deep concern with archetypal formal and thematic issues results in some of the most exciting iconic art in New York this season. Works shown here from the “Laureate” series of recent mixed-media paintings illustrate his methods and intentions. The artist brings together two of the simple geometric shapes that have long interested him and which appear throughout his work from the 70’s, the arch and the circle. Each painting boasts a painted arch-shaped wooden frame encasing a Masonite support, painted to simulate marble. A circle in the form of a gold-leaf laurel wreath rests, collagelike, on the Masonite. The arches come from old window frames—Willenbecher has often combined found throwaways with new, constructed materials in his work—and the trompe l’oeil painted surfaces continue a relatively recent development harking back to a 1979–80 series of mixed-media constructions in which the material simulated was porphyry.

The series title, “Laureate,” while a clue to the theme of creativity that the work celebrates, is also revealing of the artist’s long-standing interest in art history. What the viewer knowledgeable about pre-Modernist art sees here are forms loaded with associations, direct and overt, made with no apologies to commemorative traditions in Classical Greek and Renaissance/Baroque art. But the “Laureate” series reveals Willenbecher’s ability to use shapes and surfaces that allow him to pay homage to pre-Modernist art history without allowing references to the past to overwhelm the present or intellectuality to outweigh intuitive qualities in his vision. These works demand to be read and understood on their own specific terms. They impress as image. Contrasts in shape, texture, and color abound in them, but are presented in a precisely articulated, regular, architectonic structure; most importantly the work’s scale is oriented to the human body, addressing the head and chest region. Visual information here reaches out immediately to the viewer. The impact is not just perceptual but sharply emotive and visceral as well. In Laureate (Red), for example, the red arch, black-and-white “marble” surface, and gold-leaf wreath together express a metaphor of creativity which dares viewers to see, not echoes of themselves in its reflective surfaces, but a bold and confident image of an artist’s constructive gift to humanity. “Laureate” contains some of Willenbecher’s most compact, compelling, and aggressively pictorial forms to date.

Ronny H. Cohen