WHAT WE LIKE TO CALL THE “MODERNIST GRID” is really not modern at all. It is the application to painting of a structural pattern that is so ancient it can almost be thought of, in Platonic terms, as an Ideal Form. Grid patterns determine the layout of streets in antiquity on different continents. The grid template shaped Indus Valley town planning in the third century B.C.E.. It appealed to the Greeks and Romans. Ancient Mexican builders used it; so did the Chinese and Korean.
Thornton Willis’ latest exhibition at Elizabeth Harris exploits the grid’s primordial association with architecture. That correlation lends the power of order to Supremacist emphasis on the primacy of pure sensation and the role of color in visual excitement. Willis is a New York painter and counted as a descendant of the New York School. Nevertheless, his recent series is a vivid, if unpremeditated, evocation of the concerns of Russian Supremacism and its parallel movement, Constructivism. Both currents were based on geometrics; both were tethered to architecture no less than to painting.
“Juggernaut” (2010), typical of the ensemble, is a bold, chromatically intense network of economical allusions to cityscapes. Its abstract configurations are minimal, yet still suggestive of dense urban skylines. The structure is anchored in the distribution of 90-degree angles that neighbor, echo, or slide past each other. These near-abutments create a restlessness, a sense of movement that comes from the obliteration of any difference between foreground and background. The painting reads as both a series of architectural silhouettes and a flat, linear pattern, with no way of deciding a frontier between the two. Malevich comes to mind in the dominant expanse of red and black, supported and punctuated by clear, deep cobalt and bright orange in tandem with angular fields of pink and yellow.
A grille frame is the basis, too, of myriad elemental crafts, (e.g. weaving and basket making) and continues into the present in pixel-perfect web design. Its possibilities are boundless. For that reason, the jagged, linear progress within each painting resonates with a medley of allusions. The same set of vertices can suggest, at different moments of viewing, an ancient pottery design or the layout of a circuit board.
In Willis’ smaller canvases and studies, the process of painting, of building up a surface, takes on greater weight as a component of the motif. Lines are looser; edges more nervous and craggy. Despite the high-pitched complexion of these pieces, they are less severe than their larger, imposing cousins, softened by the traces of a probing and testing hand. What they cede in authority—the misleading impact of dimensions—they gain in tactility.
In all, the exhibition is a handsome and dramatic performance. You can see it in its entirety on the gallery website.
Thornton Willis at Elizabeth Harris Galler y, 529 W. 20 Street, 212-463-9666.
This review appeared first in CityArts , March 23, 2011.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey