Thornton Willis at Elizabeth Harris Gallery


Warrior, 2008, oil on canvas, 70 x 59 inches; Flash Back, 2008, oil on canvas, 83 x 61 inches


On the face of it, Thornton Willis’s “lattice” paintings are exactly what you see: hard-edge grids with a slight visual overlapping, as wide bands of color float over or dip behind one another. The construction depicted is as old as human culture, used in physical form for baskets and cloth.

The paintings take liberty with this structure, challenging our spatial perceptions of foreground and background, of what’s smack up against the picture plane and and how that relates to deeper, more ambiguous space. Their proportions, vertically oriented and of roughly human height, function as a kind of visual window into which you can fall, taking your perceptions with you. It’s a thrilling sensation, not unlike standing at the edge of a cliff—although your ideal viewing distance is about six feet away.

Each painting is a variation in color and structure. Even when several paintings have the same long rectangular proportion, the placement and structure of the bands—and certainly, their color, often modulated rather than flat—change, along with their individual cadences and rhythms. Looking at them in this way, music rather than textiles would seem to be the touchstone for the work.

Up close there’s another perceptual shift. What appear initially to be hard-edge paintings are in fact emphatically handmade with wavering lines and unexpected drips, pentimenti, and often a vigorous, textural overpainting. There’s a catalog photograph of Willis standing before an in-progress painting that’s taped where the colored bands are laid down. That must have been early in the process, because it’s only after the tape comes off that things get really interesting.

Summer House, 2008, oil on canvas, 68 x 43 inches; Conversion, 2008, oil on canvas, 97 x 70 inches
This latter painting, the catalog tells us, was the pivot between earlier, triangular compositions and the body of work in this show


Triple Play, 30 x 30 inches; Gotham's Rhythm, 106 x 65 inches; both 2008, oil on canvas
Below: another view of Gotham's Rhythm

Warrior in foreground; Blue Sky with Lattice and Trellis in the Sun, both 2008, oil on canvas, 61 x 34 inches

Peeking around the corner, Flash Back, a detail of which is shown below
The paintings appear hard edge from a distance, but up close they bear the enthusiasm and energy of the artist

The show is up through April 19 at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea. See more on the gallery website.


* said...

Great show, and your comments are on the mark, Joanne.

I think I saw you at the reception and wish I'd introduced myself...


Henry Bateman said...

Some very interesting work, thanks for sharing. I particularly like Gotham's Rhythm.

Joanne Mattera said...


That was not me you saw at Thornton's opening. I was at my own that night, GeoMetrics, at Gallery OneTwentyEight (which I wrote about here:

* said...

People have told me more than once I've got a doppelganger out there-- maybe you've got one too!

I've looked at the the GeoMetrics show online, now I need to get over there and see it (before the 19th-- thanks for reminding me.)


Susan Buret said...

Beautiful work. Thank you for introducing it. Now I need to see it in the flesh.

Linda Starr said...

Hi Joanne, I hope to one day try encaustic painting, thanks for the Marketing Monday posts and all the other great ones you do. I chose your blog for the Kreativ Blogger award, check my blog for the rules:

Anonymous said...

I often enjoy the shows at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. It doesn't look like I'll have the chance to make it to this one, so thanks for posting all these photos of the work in context. Even though nothing compares to seeing it in person, your ppost still dramatically increased my appreciation of the work. Too bad their exhibition card didn't do as good a job, or I would've worked harder at getting over there!

Sky Pape said...

Oops. I didn't mean to post anonymously at 1:45. Slip of the mouse!

Christopher Quirk said...

Very good of you to bring this show to people's attention. We're down the road a bit but since it is up through tomorrow I'll add one more "yes." As the photo shows and as you well describe, there is a lot of variation and looseness in the seemingly tight paintings. It is a deceptively nonchalant approach (within the formal rigor), a kind of no-nonsense direct painting that reads as using the grammar of painting to reflect a kind of integrity of approach and maturity that is just being itself in every minute, and he brings it all together into an impressive whole. Really good paintings.