Art: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Artspace 111
Fort Worth, TX
Well, Guilliams — with his pop culture-inflected imagery — isn’t trying to say anything; that’s the point.
Twin Peeks

Two North Texas artists explore the sacred and the profane at Artspace 111.


Some of the hipper clothing stores around the country are peddling garments that read, “Art Sucks.” Two types of people probably endorse that slogan — old-fashioned art lovers who believe that the essence of artmaking has been perverted by theory, and otherwise bright folks who through either choice or ignorance simply don’t “get” contemporary art. Both would proudly wear their snarky attitude to Artspace 111’s current exhibit.

Curated by long-time Artspace 111 affiliate Nancy Lamb, Liquid Lounge pits two young and hungry North Texas artists against each other. On the one side is Grant Guilliams, whose monstrous watercolors conjure everything from waking nightmares to bad acid trips. On the other, Ian O’Brien. His tiny, peaceful watercolors of churches and bucolic settings appear on the insides of matchbooks.

Neither artist is masterful, though Guilliams achieves a wholly original style via his ability to imbue his paint with oil’s sparkle, acrylic’s richness, and watercolor’s incandescence. He’s at his best when he’s exploring the medium’s psychedelic qualities, such as in “The Wreck Center,” where the vapor trail of a cigarette in a jogger’s mouth melts into bright, juicy hues, and in “Senior Ding-Dong’s Backyard Bonanza,” where the squiggly silhouette of a distant tree explodes in brilliantly dense blues, greens, and shades in between. Guilliams’ wavy-gravy form perfectly complements wavy-gravy content. Most of the characters in Guilliams’ fantastical tableaux are grotesques. The half-smile curling beneath the aquiline nose of the swarthy over-the-hill man in “Senior Ding-Dong” contains a lifetime’s worth of backdoor deals. The two dirty, sallow-faced toddlers in “Viva La Rosa!” haven’t eaten in months. The greasy Christ figure in “Trinity” could sell you your soul. Even when the sun’s shining in Guilliams’ work, there is no light.

You just wish the artist took some chances, much in the same way that John Currin applies old world techniques to new world ideas. You just wish Guilliams had tasks worthy of his skill.

Like former Artspace 111 resident Bill Haveron, Guilliams allows his deft hand to become distracted by pop culture. Clichéd imagery litters his work: the slimy carnival barker, the stud in Speedos, the domineering track coach, the vixens, the zealots. What the artist’s saying isn’t exactly clear, but he seems to be trying to say something, to make some sort of comment on the American condition. Any artist who arranges loaded imagery in such a linear way is — possibly subconsciously — begging for a readerly interpretation from his viewers. And the din grows louder.

Let’s merely hope that Guilliams does not subscribe to that school of thought that says that painting must compete — pixel for pixel — with mainstream culture to remain relevant. One of the reasons people visit art galleries is to escape bad movies, bad pop songs, and bad comic books. What self-respecting artist wants some Sex and the City-watcher buying one of his paintings, anyway? That’s no foundation for a career.

What self-respecting art lover would buy one of O’Brien’s pieces is another question entirely, especially considering that these works — like Sol LeWitt’s graphic designs — come about as close to Art-with-a-capital-A as a museum security guard’s notepad doodlings. Pieces in which O’Brien attempts hyper-reality, such as those that feature architectural structures, fall flat. The brushstrokes are simultaneously too uncertain to suggest patience and too emphatic to imply an expressionist heart at play. His pastoral scenes work better. They move and sparkle, in reflection of their subject material. You still wouldn’t throw down cold hard cash for any of these mini-paintings — if you were in your right mind. Coughing up $300-plus for something any artist could churn out in about 15 minutes is flat-out wasteful.

Some of you might say, “Well, Guilliams — with his pop culture-inflected imagery — isn’t trying to say anything; that’s the point.” Others might chime in with, “Well, O’Brien is making a statement on commerce’s overbearing influence on art for art’s sake by attaching outrageously high prices to outrageously insignificant work.” Theorists? Confusion? No wonder that “Art Sucks” attire is flying off the racks.


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