Bill Cass

Marianne Deson Gallery

The eloquent rusticity that characterized Bill Cass’ previous work has given way to a peculiarly cosmopolitan attitude in the five paintings and two drawings shown in this recent exhibition, all from 1987. In his earlier work, Cass painted and drew in a kind of faux naïf style on scavenged pieces of plywood, making reference to primitive altarpieces through additions of scuffed and painted molding. His latest works display more sophisticated paint handling and composition, and figures that bear more than a passing resemblance to Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical mannequins. The feeling of Italian pittura metafisica pervades these images, with the same anxious dislocation of time and space and ironic allegorization of classical motifs.

Dramatic symbolism reigns in the largest work here, a vertical eight-panel drawing in charcoal, which the artist has left untitled. A white-robed stick figure with no head, hands, or feet, but with a batlike wing, looms in the foreground, kneeling in front of a moonlit lake, while on the opposite shore a dark and shrouded figure is dimly visible between a belching smokestack and a procession of electrical towers. Scattered around the winged figure are various children’s toys—a bicycle, an empty wagon, a ball—and two head masks that lie in the grass before the figure, who is powerless to put them on.

Mystic Figure shows another sticklike form, its bulbous, featureless head topped with what resembles a child’s folded-paper sailor’s hat. Attached to the painting’s bulky frame are various objects, including a serpentine branch, part of a crudely painted plywood jack-o’-lantern, and a triangular wood “steeple.” The work seems almost overloaded with iconographic references, just as the seated figure is nearly engulfed in its flowing robes. Equinox also features an object-studded frame, painted in the same terra-cotta red that fills the canvas. The robes of the haloed, green stick figure in the right foreground are accurately modeled and shaded in the best academic manner, while a distant pond is rendered in percussive darts of pure color. The deep background is a nearly flat pattern of greens and reds that recalls the primitivist space of the artist’s earlier work. His varied inventory of styles in all of the new paintings is ambitious but uncomfortably immodest, sacrificing lyrical calm for a cacophony of effects.

Reviewed by Buzz Spector.