LOS ANGELES — The pendulum of art world enthusiasm swings periodically from one pole to the other, focusing attention on one set of ideas while ignoring others just as potent. Abstraction dominated for about a decade, until the trend eventually wore itself out with cries of “zombie abstraction” or “crapstraction,” as much of the work was finally dubbed. From there, the pendulum has swung to figurative art, a great swath of it addressing the urgent politics of representation. Inevitably, at some point there will be talk of “zombie figuration.” Until then, Brian Wills’s new body of work, on view at Ochi Projects, is decidedly off-trend, but deeply in tune with core concerns of visual art. It should not be overlooked.
These are works in the Southern California tradition of Light and Space, although unlike artists such as James Turrell, Wills is not working with light directly as material, but with the comparatively earthy media of paint and colored thread. Wills ingeniously constructs a double optical experience by building a shadow box, painting its back panel in a flat color, then wrapping threads over the entire frame so they stretch tautly across the open face, floating about an inch in front of the back panel. These arrangements create subtle geometric patterns that are often only visible when viewed from specific angles. Wills’s engagement with color recalls Josef Albers’s influential insights about how our perception of a color differs depending on the hue put alongside it. An entire room in the gallery is painted International Klein Blue, a particular tone collaboratively invented by the artist Yves Klein, causing Wills’s works to hum and shift dramatically against the vibrant blue.
My experience of Wills’s works changed substantially depending on whether I stood directly in front of them or looked from an angle. If I lined my eyes up with the center of “Untitled (YKB layered grid)” (2021–2022) — which Wills wrapped fully in thread save for an open square in the exact middle — the color on the back panel floated forward, even past the plane of the thread itself, appearing to be a solid mass of light. He repeats this trick throughout the show, each time with a different color scheme. Spending time with these works made me feel acutely aware of the phenomenology of my own vision, my presence in space, and my seeing self. It is a peculiar experience well worth having.
Brian Wills continues at Ochi Projects (3301 West Washington Boulevard, Arlington Heights, Los Angeles) through March 12.