Cool Threads | Dec 2009

Brian Wills uses precisely placed strands of thread instead of paint.
Brian Wills uses precisely placed strands of thread instead of paint. Courtesy of Barbara Davis Gallery

I’m a sucker for a good painting gimmick, and Brian Wills has one. Wills creates stripe paintings with slender and precisely spaced strands of thread instead of lines of paint. It’s work probably best suited to someone with steady hands and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the results can be pretty nice. A collection of the Los Angeles artist’s works are on view at Barbara Davis Gallery in “Brian Wills: Sugarlounge.”

“Gimmick” probably isn’t the best word. “Strategy” is less pejorative-sounding, and it’s an artier term. So Wills’s “strategy” involves painstakingly stretching single rayon threads across painted wooden panels and coating them with polyurethane. Five Flavors (2008) is one of the most successful examples. About four-by-six-feet, the painting at first looks like a swath of fabric that’s been tightly stretched and thickly sealed. Slender “pin stripes” of pale yellow, mint green, turquoise blue, purple, red and pink are stretched across a white ground. From a distance, it kind of looks like he might be gluing down men’s dress shirts from the big-and-tall store. You don’t really know what’s going on until you get up really close and peer through the multiple layers of shiny coating to find a rare instance when a thread wavers slightly from its vertical path. Occasionally, Wills places two tiny threads side by side to make an infinitesimally thicker stripe — the work is that exacting.

In Untitled (Pale Green) (2009), the stripes call to mind ruled notebook paper. The polyurethane even gives the threads the same subtle blur as the printed lines of cheap paper. The only time these thickly polyurethaned works don’t succeed is when Wills uses a darker ground for his thread, as in the 2009 works Untitled (Fire Red) and Untitled (Peacock Blue), whose surfaces become too reflective, with the striping less apparent — they don’t let the viewer in.

The paintings are like an analog version of Houston artist Williams Betts’s machine-produced stripe paintings. (Betts developed “proprietary technology” to produce fantastically precise paintings that extend a single row of pixels from a photographic image into lines.)The only problem with a gimmick is when it starts to feel like one. That can happen fairly easily if you see enough examples of a novel technique. Standard Candles (2007-2009) is a grid of 100 six-by-six-inch wood squares. Each is differently colored and differently executed, and together, they unfortunately read like a sample board for the artist’s work, taking away from the other works in the show. The squares are neatly and widely spaced apart — they might work better if the artist just jammed them together into a single, patchworked mass.

But Wills seems to be much more than a one-trick pony. (I don’t think he’s a one-trick anything — the guy’s apparently got an MA and a law degree from Harvard.) In some of the more recent works, the artist is cutting back on the multiple layers of polyurethane and letting the texture of the thread show through. You can feel the thread in Graph Grid (2009), a work that looks pretty much like a sheet of graph paper, except where the lines have gone a little wonky, something that, rather than reading as a flaw, makes the work more human.

For other paintings, Wills wrapped strips of wood with multicolored threads and then pasted them down on a board. The colors shift and intensify when viewed at a sharp angle. The results — Sugarlounge (2009) is an example — look like hip upholstery fabric. (Which reminds me of another recent show with a good painting gimmick. A few months back, CTRL Gallery showed work by Sasha Pierce, an artist who extruded minuscule skeins of paint like icing to create paintings that looked like they were woven. What’s the deal with the upholstery zeitgeist?)

The strip paintings aren’t bad, but Wills has got to watch the technical issues. Several of those thin wood strips seem to be peeling up. That stuff is hard to keep glued down and stop from warping. But overall, it’s an appealing show with enough visually satisfying work to make it worth the trip — even if you aren’t a materials geek. You don’t have to care how it’s made to appreciate it.

Source: Cool Threads | Houston Press