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Jim Williams’ Landscapes Suggest a State in Flux

By Jane Durrell · February 14th, 2012 · Visual Art
Printmaker Jim Williams sets himself strict limitations of size and color range but proceeds to produce a diverse, intellectually stimulating group of mono-prints for his current Clay Street Press exhibition. His artist’s statement describes the new work in Hybrid Structures as his “search for a visual equivalent to the daily dynamic interplay that occurs between the man-made and the natural environment.” Ah, so. Interesting to know where he’s coming from, but as usual with art what the spectator brings to it has its own rewards.

Curiosity is a good thing to bring. Aside from “How does he do that?” (Answer: experience and skill, extensive layering, openness to what the artist himself terms “unorthodox materials”), another question might be “What’s going on here?” The eleven new works are landscapes of a sort, veering toward topographic maps, all printed on the same size paper (30-by-44 inches), some presented as horizontals and some as verticals, all described as relief and silkscreen. 

Color is restrained. There are black, gray, tan and blue hues that do not call attention to themselves. Shape clearly is important. “He sees a shape he likes,” says Mark Patsfall of Clay Street Press, pointing to an almost-rhombus within a complicated composition, “and he makes a stencil.” The stencils themselves have been mounted in the odd little upper portion of the entrance gallery, four steps up from the floor, like a front porch with no front door. On these three walls the yellow/black/yellowed-white stencils are lightly tacked, each held by one corner with a black push-pin.

They are a breezy looking gathering, providing a welcome, almost frivolous contrast to the restrained works they helped to form.

It is useful to read Williams’ artist’s statement, which like his work has no wasted gestures. His “unorthodox materials” he describes as “scraps of wood, metal, plastic, paper and other assorted debris. These materials are then composed and collaged into an inked surface and then transferred to paper,” but only once, hence “mono-print” — by definition one-of-a-kind rather than one of a series. The statement continues, “Within these micro-macro, metaphoric/biomorphic landscapes, texture and form coalesce. Striving for a delicate balance, the images take on the appearance of hybrid structures dwelling in a state of flux.”

Indeed. Relationships here are tenuous, one almost expects them to shift if you turn your back.

“Fracture” shows a landscape disrupted, an ominous pale shape floating across its middle. That shape itself is broken, one end cracked off. “Fracture” is horizontal; “Untitled II” is vertical and can almost suggest a figure with a soldier’s shield. 

Titles are clues to what’s going on in some works. “Slice” has a strong sense of depth and layering. In “Hovering” a form — An animal? An enemy’s weapon? — is superimposed over ruled black lines that suggest plowed fields seen from the air. More orderly lines, some vertical and some horizontal, form the background for a shape that might be a stone or might be a human head in “Pursuit.” “Hemmed In” is very dark with a yellow-ish, black-marked band at middle left and blue constraints suggested at right. Perhaps the darkest in tone of all these works is “Journey,” in which a branching path juts up between a blue-ish field at left and a yellow with the light drained from it at right.

In counterpoint to these recent works are four relief prints with collage, made by the artist in the 1970s. Approximately half the size of the new pieces, they suggest more definable landscapes and objects that appear to be identifiable until you wonder if what seems to be a mountain is perhaps a knee beneath a sheet? “This is what he was doing when I was his student,” says Patsfall, who, like a host of other printmakers, studied under Williams at the University of Cincinnati. Professor Williams joined the faculty there in 1970 and now is Associate Director of the School of Art. The addition of these earlier works suggests not only Williams’ path as an artist but also what has happened to printmaking itself down those years. Hybrid Structures is an exhibition that rewards close attention. 

Jim Williams’ Hybrid Structures is on display at Clay Street Press through March 17.



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