New York

Brian Wills, Untitled (Five Flavors), 2010, enamel, rayon thread, linear polyurethane on wood, 36 x 48".

Brian Wills, Untitled (Five Flavors), 2010, enamel, rayon thread, linear polyurethane on wood, 36 x 48".

Brian Wills


Brian Wills, Untitled (Five Flavors), 2010, enamel, rayon thread, linear polyurethane on wood, 36 x 48".

For Brian Wills, a Los Angeles artist, modernist abstraction—its East and West Coast modes alike—is still fertile territory. Fourteen of his exactingly crafted geometric paintings, wood panels layered with rows or grids of colored rayon thread and pigmented varnishes and enamels, made up his New York solo debut. Most are modestly sized, but a few extend to eight feet wide; some feature vibrant strands on pastel or neutral fields, though a number of supports are covered in electric hues; several have allover patterns, while the lines in still others cluster irregularly or mass toward the center, as if by centripetal pull. The work is unassuming, even quiet, but its effects are knockout.

Wills encounters, and plays up, the oppositions endemic to his subject. Lines chart recession or depth even as they map the confines of the surface, as in Untitled, 2010, in which the intervals between individual horizontal threads decrease incrementally from the top and bottom edges toward the middle, where a thicker band of prismatic stripes shimmers, horizon-like. In Untitled (Five Flavors), 2010, geometry’s presumed antinaturalism betrays itself: Two halves of the composition, one scored with vertical black lines and the other with rainbow striae, appear to fold into a central zip that comes to stand in for an upright body, now coterminous with the field of vision. Any didactic quality one might impute to these works—noticing that one color seems to ebb against a given ground while another pops, for example, or that the mind autocorrects for perspectival discrepancy—is overwhelmed by the very real physical sensations of vertigo and retinal vibration they induce.

What is particular to Wills’s approach, and the source of its great interest, is the way in which his means literalize the links between the grid and opticality, redoubling their tensions. The latticed rainbow filaments of Untitled (White Plaid), 2010, for instance, are interleaved with coats of enamel, activating a surface whose gleaming patina seems to simultaneously admit and reflect light. This combination of attraction and repulsion, exterior sheen and interior strata, is equally striking in more opaque works such as Untitled (Peacock Blue), 2009, and Untitled (Navy Blue), 2010. And as much as the artist’s threaded axes suggest planes beyond the margins of the panels, the perfection of their facture (made especially apparent by rare imperfections, a mar in the polish here or a wavering fiber there) returns attention to them as finite objects. A trio of works on wood that have not been lacquered with color is unusually lovely; flawless lines overlay knotting, discoloration, and grain marks, distilling a confrontation of design and accident.

These paintings channel, unequivocally, some of linear abstraction’s leading lights. Untitled (Red #2), 2010, is less an homage to Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, than a revisiting of it, and it’s impossible to look at Untitled (Graph Grid), 2009, without thinking of Agnes Martin. (Compositions of unevenly distributed, chromatically discordant vertical stripes summon another forebear, one less mentioned these days—Gene Davis.) Even more proximate is the LA context. On a formal level, Wills recalls the clean geometries of painters such as Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin, and Karl Benjamin, and, in the register of sensibility, SoCal Minimalist and finish-fetish work: art that married a fastidiousness of craft to industrial materials (Wills employs a varnish used to polish boats and surfboards), that annexed light in the service of dramatic perceptual effects, and that was frank about its own beauty, whether pale or neon. This exhibition proved Wills a worthy legatee.

Lisa Turvey