New York

John Willenbecher

Hamilton Gallery

John Willenbecher continues to intensify the iconic dimension of his vision. This show develops to new expressive heights the insights into the symbiotic relationship between archetypal forms and contents found in the 1981 series “Laureate” (reviewed in Artforum in April 1982).

The majority of the works on view consisted of mixed-media relief paintings. Named after the persons and places of, Greek mythology—Apollo, Zeus, and Olympus are examples—each boasts surfaces painted to simulate marble, and one or more gold-leafed objects symbolic of the subject. In Apollo, a vertically disposed diptych, a gold-leafed tubular form bringing to mind the frame of a lyre is hung against a pair of “marbled” panels from two wooden pegs. The effect is confrontational and affective; the larger-than-life “marble” surface, streaked with luminous trompe l’oeil patterns, shimmers and glows. At the same time, Apollo encourages speculation about the literary and metaphorical aspects of the subject and about art’s metaphysical role in commemorating, celebrating, and concretizing the universal forces embodied traditionally by the figures of the mythological gods. In Ceres, a horizontally disposed triptych, a cluster of “found” gold-leafed metal bars with pointed tips leans against the yellow, orange, and brown veins of the bright “marble” surface. Through strong contrasts in color and shape the composition evokes the generative powers associated with its subject, the female deity of the harvest.

Structures vary from work to work. Perseus, for example, is a boxlike form with a plywood shelf on which the gold-leafed symbol of this hero rests; the size and shape of the piece bring to mind the chest-high dimensions and arch of the “Laureate” series, where the simulated marble surfaces first appeared. Their treatment in this present group of works is paradoxically both more free and more specific. Not only is the trompe l’oeil element even more convincing in these mostly larger works, but the beauty of the surface generates the kind of full-bodied sensual-cum-visceral-cum-intellectual response that is the hallmark of truly authentic art. The painted bronze sculptures of skulls make an equally profound impact.

Ronny H. Cohen