Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Tom Bills, for decades primarily a large-scale sculptor, has recently translated that vocation into riveting compact-yet-monumental wall-mounted pieces now on display at 57W57 Arts in midtown Manhattan. Rectangles of modest size, their highly wrought finishes and elliptical narratives invest them with an improbably kinetic presence and stern gravitas that leave the viewer both sobered and assured.
Materials – to wit, rusted 1/8” steel plate with hand cut-outs filled with pigmented resin – clearly matter for Bills, who early in his career worked for Richard Serra. These elements facilitate a pristine and seemingly impenetrable density, whereby his work tersely nods to muscular Minimalism and registers the compelling weight of simple object-ness. Bills himself resolutely resists overthinking his art: “I can’t tell you what it is, I can only show you what I saw in the moment.” That an artwork is a direct manifestation of observation is perhaps a truism. More significant is Bills’ intimation that his own observation is purposefully unmediated by any particular plan or preconception, inference or intent.
On this score, his riff about his larger work in a 2018 interview with Tom Butter, published in White Hot Magazine,is telling: “If the viewer stops, pauses and thinks about it, that’s my goal. Nothing more than that. My work is just a visual stimulation; when we walk out and see a glistening yellow maple tree we are drawn to it, we fixate on it, we love what it looks like. It’s beautiful! At that moment, there is nothing else. We don’t ask why or wonder how this came to be, we simply enjoy the visual experience. That’s what I want my art to do. I want it to have those qualities, I want to feel pleasure from something in front of me.”
That said, Bills’ wall sculptures may reward scrutiny. Their playfully oblique titles – for instance, Loop Dogs, Slow Gains, and The Spectator – often reflect visual content and could allude to personal or aesthetic journeys: all but one of the pieces on view incorporate at least one raised cut-out that seems to function as point of departure or arrival; one piece – Black Square – could refer to Malevich’s seminal painting in featuring the eponymous shape as what seems to be a solemn fount of florid creation. The constancy of nature also infiltrates the work. Bills made the sculptures at his rustic studio in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and they present as objects of earthly permanence. However small, they conjure land art in their spare, elegant, conceivably geological line. A facsimile of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty might not look out of place in one of Bills’ pieces. Some of his titles – Bird Trap, Green Knows, Summer Summit, Yellow Rain – suggest organic connections with nature.
These submerged themes may be sources of his work’s subliminal power. But Bills himself would not presume to dissect or describe that power. He once said in an artist statement: “I want the work to stand unchallenged because its own character is final. When there is nothing to give but itself as fact, and there is no expectation that the viewer has to bring forth an understanding of anything, the piece is successful.” Maybe this review is interesting, but it is not essential. Seeing the work is the thing.
“Tom Bills: Wall Sculptures,” 57W57 Arts, 57 W. 57th Street, New York, NY. Through October 14, 2022.
Also on view:
Waiting Room group show organized by Benjamin Pritchard; Benjamin Pritchard, Constellation; Benjamin Heiken, A Difference Of Worlds