James Little & Thornton Willis at Sideshow

Raising the Bar is the title of a show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, and it’s been irking me to no end. What on earth can it mean? I know it’s a sports analogy–something about setting new standards and posing new challenges. But please explain to me what it has to do with Thornton Willis and James Little, two abstract painters currently sharing exhibition space in Brooklyn.

Does it mean that each man is raising the bar on his own art? If so, the title’s redundant–any artist worth his snuff is already working to build upon past achievements. Does it mean that these two “painter’s painters” have established the, ahem, New Paradigm of Abstraction? Confidence is one thing, self-aggrandizement another.

Maybe Mr. Willis and Mr. Little, veteran painters both, want to “raise the bar” on all those hip young whippersnappers for whom Williamsburg is an artistic Mecca? That’s too easy: The Williamsburg aesthetic doesn’t ask for much. Or can it mean, finally, that Mr. Willis and Mr. Little are engaged in a healthy competition predicated on similar interests and mutual respect?

Now that’s more like it–and, I hope, the case. Certainly Mr. Willis and Mr. Little are of like mind when it comes to the art of painting. Forget, for a moment, the specific pictorial commonalities they share–a fondness for diagonals, say, or an interest in heraldic arrangements of shape. Each man loves the art of painting for the expressive potential inherent in its fundamental characteristics. They’re particular artists–specialists, in fact. The optical heft of a considered surface; the physical presence of uninflected color; the monumental shift of form that can occur from the slightest tweaking of proportion–Mr. Willis and Mr. Little coax a richness of affect from subtleties unique to their craft.

They do so within rather limited frameworks. Mr. Willis paints kaleidoscopic pictures whose basic building block is the triangle. Relishing the unexpected juxtapositions that can occur from improvisation, Mr. Willis doesn’t cover his tracks: The surfaces of his origami-like pictures are various and layered, open-ended and often haphazard. Washy underpainting, frantic clots of texture and errant drips–Mr. Willis’ facture can be showy, a self-conscious patchwork of approaches rather than an organic whole. His debt to the New York School is plainly stated and heartfelt, but misapplied; the pictures are, at times, too rough for their own good. Besides, Mr. Willis isn’t an expressionist. His true calling is structure. Cubism informs the oeuvre as a whole, but powers only the big pictures. Spinner (2004) is rigorous and clunky in the right measures.

As a paint-handler, Mr. Little is more polished and smooth, given to forethought rather than intervention. Favoring sharp lines and silky surfaces, he creates spare and striking pictures out of fields of radiant color and zooming arrays of stripes. Eye-popping contrasts in the tone and temperature of his palette result in remarkably fluid elisions between figure and ground. Quid Pro Quo (2005) is divided in two sections: an expanse of blue interrupted by inverted shards of red and a grouping of no-less-strident bars of yellow, blue and a refreshing, out-of-nowhere green. The overall effect, given the artist’s jolting way with color, is surprisingly serene. Not all of Mr. Little’s canvases are as at odds with each other as Quid Pro Quo, and they’re less complicated (and compelling) because of it.

Would that he took a lesson or two in establishing tensions and harmonies–in other words, composition–from Mr. Willis. Having said that, Mr. Willis should look to Mr. Little for coloristic invention; his reliance on the primaries is unimaginative when it isn’t pedantic. Here’s a suggestion: The two men should spend less time raising the bar and more time going the distance. Mr. Willis or Mr. Little get pretty far as it is, but you do wish they’d stop advertising the fact that they have something to prove.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 17, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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