20.3.09

THORNTON WILLIS at Elizabeth Harris

Thornton Willis, Conversion, 2008, 97 x 70 inches, oil on canvas

Thornton Willis, Conversion, 2008, Detail

Thornton Willis, Black Warrior, 2008, 70 x 59 inches, oil on canvas

Immediately upon entering the new Thornton Willis exhibition at Elizabeth Harris through April 18, anyone who is a lover of painting will inevitably feel a rush of recognition -- that increasingly rare sense of being in the presence of an authentic voice. At once familiar and challenging, this rich new body of work is like the visual equivalent of a great Muddy Waters record that takes the traditional 12-bar blues, strips it down, opens it up, and invests it with an abundance of guts and lived wisdom. Now well into his 70s, Willis is in peak form, achieving here an important breakthrough that exudes momentum and clarity. Compared with the complexity of his previous triangular cluster configurations, the new paintings, which revisit a configuration he touched upon 30 years ago, have a much simpler pictorial space consisting of interlacing horizontal and vertical color bands on a solid color field. By simplifying the image, Thornton has cleared the way for a new emphasis on color and material -- acidic and nuanced color relations glowing from luscious layered oil surfaces with plenty of ragged edges and pentimenti. There is a lively tension between the physicality of the surface and the openness, almost breeziness of the space, with each structural deviation and color modulation or incident producing an electric charge. And just like a deep blues, steeped in a long expressive tradition, these works evoke and celebrate both the difficulty and the exhilaration of the process -- the feeling of life.