On ViewElizabeth Harris Gallery
February 25 – April 8, 2023
There is something beyond the charisma of a simple visual structure—the lattice—at play in Thornton Willis’s recent series of paintings. Willis has used interlocking bars since the seventies, and amongst his cast of squares, rectangles, zigs, and zags, these long bars of color that float, and sometimes intersect, have been his means of creating a sense of illusory space. But in a painting such as homage to the first generation (2021), it is the singular form of a tall yellow vertical intersected two-thirds of the way up its length by a heavy blue horizontal which takes prominence against a robin’s egg blue background. Is it that the eye jumps immediately to a cruciform shape? vered and me (2022) starts from the same point—the same lemon-bright yellow against the same light-absorbing blue—but with the horizontal at midpoint, and consequently the recognition factor goes way down (except perhaps for those more familiar with Greek or Maltese crosses). Willis surrounds the central bars in both cases with four bars composing a frame, and a game begins: to see not only how much or how little it takes to distract the mind from preconceived notions, but also how space can be constructed, though the painter does enjoy the flickering conceptual realm between fooling the eye into thinking it’s looking at solid form versus the flat space of paint on canvas.
But whether these paintings have become primarily a formalistic jenga-like game of balance, they started with something literal. Willis intriguingly built several wooden wall pieces around ten years ago, works such as The Garden Trellis and The Garden Gate (both 2012). And preceded those with his “Lattice” painting series from 2008 (all viewable on his website). There begins to be the possibility of an obsession here. One could hardly find a better muse for the abstract painter than the thin wooden bands of the garden trellis, weaving in and out—simultaneously delineating and then flattening space. The exhibition’s most involved painting, homage to ken noland (2021), stands out from the other works in its clearest asymmetry. Willis seems happily in league with a group of painters, Tom McGlynn, Dorothea Rockburne, David Diao, Mary Heilmann, and James Little, going back to Hans Hofmann—pure abstractionists—for whom geometry is absolute, and notions of symmetry, balance, and harmony are not to be interfered with by “the real.” But in homage to ken noland, we do see an actual lattice: yellow and green horizontals stretch across the canvas, seeming to continue off the picture plane while the verticals weave in and out of horizontals, and Willis seems to partly release himself from his symmetrical mindset in the “Lattice” series, allowing the edges of his bars to not line up. The result is an all-over and compositionally imbalanced (in a good way) painting that is much closer to his other series, the rectangles and triangular compositions, and much less contained and carefully planned than the other lattices.
But exploring elements of randomness is not the aim of Floating Lattices, and the artist seems focused on the details, or at least gentle variations that hint at deeper questions of perception. In 3 gray squares #2 (2021), he presents us with the simplest representation of a lattice: three verticals, two blue and a central brown, and three horizontals, all orange. So many of the paintings rely on a single bar acting as an instigator or troublemaker, and in this case the central horizontal suddenly seems to have decided to go roguishly transparent. While the orange bar crosses the three verticals, the squares of the overlap are uniformly gray, which doesn’t quite work from a complementary color point of view, but this is abstract painting! Similarly, in Pushout (2022), Willis breaks the lattice compositional equation by prominently floating a single green horizontal above the four red verticals, forcing us to meditate on the implication of floating in flat space; more chaotically, he also leaves a few drips and errant brush strokes on the canvas—part of a campaign of subtle glitches in the lattice—pencil lines, overlaps of color, and unfinished edges that keep throwing cold water on the illusionistic hard-edge painting tradition in which Willis is firmly embedded. He reminds us that holding fast to our perceptions is only as useful as our insistence on what we think a painting is capable of.