San Francisco

Bill Bury

Wirtz Art

At first glance, the 28 identically sized, framed paintings in this show seemed to spring from a familiar strategy: a series of variations on a compositional theme based on a certain group of elements in a prescribed format. In each small work, sinuous blobs reminiscent of ’50s coffee tables, Joan Miró-esque abstractions, and undersea life collide and overlap, punctuated by a loopy squiggle that terminates in the painted suggestion of a tiny glow. The blob’s lively protoplasmic shapes are rendered either as solid forms, in achingly beautiful combinations of dense, delicious-looking color, or as outlines against flat, relatively neutral grounds. All this, however, is merely a consideration of the way these paintings look. The statement posted on the gallery wall revealed that the biomorphic shapes disporting themselves in these compositions were inspired by a story the artist overheard about marine anglerfish. Apparently, this carnivorous species has adapted uniquely to its home in the murky shadows of the ocean’s depths, luring its prey with a kind of light that wiggles temptingly at the end of a long dorsal fin ray. As unsuspecting fish come closer, the light moves closer to the mouth of the aptly named angler, who then opens wide—up to 180 degrees—and swallows.

Bill Bury apparently saw in this anecdote a powerful metaphor for a depressing, yet inescapably real aspect of modern life: the prevalence of “false prophets,” for whom this series of paintings has been named. “Reflecting on what appears to be a dark moment in man’s history,” he writes, “the desire today to follow even a dim bulb is understandable and widespread. The comforting glow emanating from ideologues, initially reassuring and always full of promises, often harbors false intentions with disastrous results.”

After reading Bury’s statement, of course, it’s impossible to look at these images without seeing a hilarious (if sinister) narrative of cunning, deceitful anglers seducing their prey: evangelists and politicians, New Age gurus and diet doctors reeling in gullible victims with promises of everything from tax relief to the Second Coming. You realize that from the first, many things about these paintings—their small size, identical square format, even their handsome gunmetal-gray frames—suggest they’re portraits. At the same time, Bury’s gifts for color and composition make you want to just drift along, enticed by the little lights dangling on a squiggle, until you’re swallowed up by the sheer beauty of these faintly melancholic, slightly eccentric little paintings. His materials—a kind of concentrated ink brushed onto concrete board—have a soft, friable, almost velvety quality. These dry-looking surfaces suggest something halfway between painting and drawing, a reading accentuated by Bury’s adept use of line. Faint ghosts of pigment staining the backgrounds evoke movement underwater—or, perhaps, just Bury’s process of decision making. With an almost ironic charm, he throws back the curtain, as if to say that art, too, has its demagogues: those who would lead us astray with siren songs for everything from French theory to piles of dismembered Barbie dolls, and Bury is not one of them.

Maria Porges