Maria Phillips and Robert Williams @ BAM

Whiplash is not a common art-viewing sensation, but the Bellevue Arts Museum does a good job of inducing it with a combination of two new exhibitions: Robert Williams’ The Father of Exponential Imagination, and Maria Phillips’ Hidden in Plain Sight. The recently-opened exhibitions represent a polarity, and as such, it’s impossible to resist comparison. One is a targeted exploration of a single topic and the other is a shotgun blast. Each of these shows has individual merits, but the main sensation I left with was that of my brain grinding between gears, attempting to shift too quickly between micro and macro, sincerity and sarcasm, scumbled surfaces and hot-rod finishes. 

Maria Phillips, Feedback Cycle -Iceland #6, 2019, plastic bag, sea plants, fabric, thread, found cassette tape. Found in Iceland. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Because of the architecture of the museum, and a natural tendency to list rightward (maybe it’s a cultural hazard of left-right reading?) Phillips’ exhibition is the first you encounter in the third floor gallery space. Her work is exceedingly delicate, compiled from (mostly plastic) found objects in various stages of decay. She drifts between the perspective of a pure aesthete (aren’t these objects beautiful?) and the slow-dawning horror of a victim of sleep paralysis (oh, god. What have we done?) She does a good job of bringing the viewer along with her, especially with the works that toe this specific line. One excellent example of this is the gauzy video piece that dances on one wall. It looks like drifting water or the shadow of one’s lashes on a microscope eyepiece. It’s mesmerizing as the video and our vision attempt to focus as one, but it becomes clear both through context (and the wall-text) that the object is clear plastic floating in water–an image which evokes the near-constant news stories of beached marine animals found with pounds of ingested plastics in their bodies. 

Maria Phillips, Undercurrent Plasticine, 2019. Installation shot. Courtesy of Bellevue Art Museum.

Phillips guides us through these connections on multiple scales as well. An arm-mounted magnifier allows us to peer up close at a perfect miniature forest of organisms that has grown on a chamois cloth. The largest work in the exhibition, Undercurrent Plasticine,  a collection of clear plastic and non-recyclable items like snack bags that the artist collected over the course of the year, shows us the massive impact of one family over time. One particularly resonant work is Feedback Cycle – Iceland #6, one of her intimate wall-sculptures containing a decrepit cassette tape. It reminded me of a point my mother made to me about a plastic toy she’d once owned. “That exists somewhere,” she said hauntingly. 

Maria Phillips, Feedback Cycle -Seattle # 2, 2019. Plastic bottle caps, bottle rings, plastic strapping. Found in Seattle, WA. Photo: Emilie Smith.

Phillips’ work addresses a topic that is both personal and global, and as such the sculptures work best when they’re given some room to breathe. Interestingly, room to breathe is what is also needed in the more-extensive Robert Williams exhibition, The Father of Exponential Imagination, directly adjacent to Hidden in Plain Sight. The eponymous Father’s most impactful role is as one of the founders of Juxtapoz Magazine, a venue that almost single-handedly introduced the rest of the nation to the California-centric Lowbrow Art movement from the late nineties onward. This exhibition culls from more than 20 years of Williams’ work, including paintings, drawings, and sculpture. For most of the larger paintings, and some of the smaller works, Williams has included explanatory texts that read as semi-comprehensible diatribes against whatever aspect of the society he is critiquing most in that particular painting. These texts drive home my main beef with Williams’ work…there’s a lot of over-explaining, and very little room for the viewer to insert herself into the fray. 

Robert Williams, Rapacious Wheel, Courtesy of Museum of Sonoma County

Williams’ paintings utilize the visual language of graphic novels and illustration. He is clearly a gifted draftsman. Of particular interest are the sketches for his sculptures, carefully hatched with confident linework. But Williams’ critiques against the rest of humanity-from the haughty art world to the disconnected nuclear family to the perils of modern love, read for the most part as gruesome and baleful allegories. His sophisticated style of drawing clashes with his somewhat childish interpretation of “society’s ills.” All of this outward finger pointing combined with very little introspection is off-putting, which is a shame given his artistic resources. 

Robert Williams, Death By Exasperation, 2010. Oil on canvas, 38 x 42 in.

The best works in the exhibition are the two sculptures, glossy and monstrous fiberglass constructions. Of these, The Rapacious Wheel, a rubber-burning circle of endlessly chomping mouths, is particularly arresting, and most succinctly sums up the artist’s worldview. Based on the work’s title, it’s clear that Williams views greed as a kind of eternally spinning force that gobbles up everything in its path. ...Exponential Imagination is similarly greedy as Williams wolfs down whole sections of society with contemptuous zeal. The majority of the show is rife with cartoonish violence and whole kaleidoscopes of color, and somehow still manages to ring a bit hollow. It’s too much merciless chastening and cynicism…after all, if everyone is an irredeemable monster, why bother trying to be better? 

Robert Williams, Pathos in Papier-Mache, 2012. Oil on canvas, 84 x 90 in.

Both of these artists deal in the “more is more” aesthetic, appropriate fodder for what may be the most defining characteristic of modern life–accumulation. One has turned her focus on her own complicity, offering nuance and beauty as an amplifying contrast to the existential terror she describes. The other refuses to throw himself under the “rapacious wheel” of his own societal critique, thus for all his gesturing at the horror-show, his message remains quite tame.

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