Lisa Williamson Pushes Metal to the Edge
For her first New York solo show, A Landscape and a Hum at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Los Angeles-based artist Lisa Williamson presents a much needed example of how steel and aluminum can be poetic, beautiful, and conceptually profound. The materials are often used in large, blue chip sculptures made by men and have become associated with machismo, opulence, and coldness. Williamson’s treatment of the rigid metals seems to defy their very nature. She bends, folds, curves, and suspends them from the ceiling as if they are weightless.
Williamson creates sleek, crisp sculptures whose surfaces she hand paints in rich colors with stripes and geometric shapes and patterns. With an understanding of how objects function in space, Williamson views the entire show as a whole, creating works that interact with one another, as well as with the architecture and volume of the gallery. Throughout the exhibition, there is a sense of wonder, as if the works are inviting the viewer’s curiosity. Walking around each piece is a delightful process of discovery as unexpected elements appear from different angles.
The exhibition consists of large, vertical sculptures on the ground floor and horizontal pieces and works on paper upstairs. Walking into the ground floor, the viewer is quickly met with colorful, sleek surfaces that adorn walls and suspend from the ceiling. While the suspended forms appear to be distinctly sculptural, there’s a sense of uncertainty whether the works on the wall are paintings or sculptures, a delineation that becomes more and more complicated throughout the show. Abandoning logic and any attempt to classify Williamson’s practice, her work truly comes to life.
Some pieces resemble the shape of a body, like Silhouette Rouge (all works 2022), from which the outline of an orange and pink dress emerges. The vertical works in general relate to the body–each one slightly taller than a person at roughly seven feet. From the side, Silhouette Rouge also recalls an abstracted bed, perhaps Robert Rauschenberg’s famous Bed (1955) complete with a quilt and pillow installed vertically on the wall. Adding to this domestic atmosphere is the outline of a green window that takes shape nearby in Window View.
Other sculptures bring to mind medical and scientific devices, seen in the forms of Suspension Tune and Suspension Point that bear similarities to a tuning fork. With two others in the series on view (Suspension Wave and Suspension Split), these two-pronged sculptures hang from the gallery ceiling, hovering above the floor. They interact visually with varying pops of color from the bubble gum pink of Wave to the bright orange at the top of Point, each one draws the eye across the large room, delineating and punctuating the space of the gallery.
The shapes of the suspended sculptures allude to the auditory element of the exhibition title: the hum. Tuning forks have been used for centuries to–as the name suggests–tune musical instruments. They also have come to adopt medical and therapeutic qualities to test a person’s hearing and to purify the air, the latter of which is based on spiritual beliefs that sounds can create healing vibrations. While Williamson’s sculptures do not hum, they certainly lend a conceptual sense of vibration to the show.
There is an element of play throughout Williamson’s work. She pushes the boundaries of her materials, focusing the viewer’s attention on the surface to question what’s in front of them. On Reflection Pool–a silver rectangle with a small patch missing from the bottom right–small, curved posts emerge like alien antennae. Bright yellow and pink spheres are attached to the ends, jutting out towards the viewer. The delicate posts and spheres defy the strong, rigid materials. It’s hard to believe steel and aluminum make up the work.
Vibrant bands of color abound in the works on view. In the upstairs gallery, these bands take on the form of horizons in sculptures installed along the wall. The narrow rectangles of varying lengths wrap around the room, creating a rhythmic, punctuated band. Included are Bar Beams and Bar Horizon, which have layers or colorful stripes like a flattened rainbow. Bar Dash has a black background with light, turquoise dashes that resemble a stretch of a highway. Bar Ladder is, as the name suggests, a ladder laying on its side. Whereas the downstairs works seem to delineate space, the upstairs work appear to somehow measure it. What they’re measuring is unclear, Williamson offers no code. Instead, the horizontal wall sculptures lead the viewer on a journey around the room.
It’s in this upstairs portion of the show that the landscape part of the exhibition title becomes clear. Individually, each bar of color seems to resemble something vaguely recognizable: a highway, a ladder, a rainbow. Taken as a whole–a way of viewing Williamson seems to master–the bars appear like a disassembled cityscape, each piece coming together to form an entire scene. A patch of green paint that at first seemed abstract suddenly becomes a field of grass, an image confirmed by the work title: Bar Field. The pink, yellow, and green contained within the bands of Bar Beams begins to recall a stretched out traffic light or lights of cars speeding by. Everything seems to slowly connect, and yet each work still stands strong on its own. The viewer is again left wondering if there is a hidden code.
With hints of representations, Williamson’s work defies categorization as abstract. Even her treatment of the surface–painting the aluminum and steel that she so expertly shapes–makes it difficult to call the works sculptures. They are abstract and representational, sculptures and paintings. Perhaps this is why Williamson’s work is so inviting, so welcoming. There may be larger meaning to glean, but simply viewing her work in person is an experience in itself. There is excitement in understanding the materials, joy in discovering the bends and folds, and above all, there is satisfaction in appreciating just how elegant, complex, and thought-provoking metal can really be.
A Landscape and a Hum is on view through December 17 at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer and art advisor. As a writer, she focuses on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, and Artillery Magazine among others. Keenan has worked in several major museums and galleries worldwide, including the Broad Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Keenan specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. l Instagram l Email l