Even with the most deceptively simple works, there can be much more than meets the eye at first glance. Such is the case with the 20 linocuts by Maryanna Williams currently on display at the Columbia Museum of Art.
The title of the exhibition provides some insight into the artist’s overall intention. In creating her block prints, Williams invites gallery visitors to experience the act of “Seeing Through the Layers.”
The word “layer” has two principal meanings. It can refer to an overlying surface or segment. To create these reduced linoleum prints, for instance, the artist generates each color layer from the same linoleum block, sequentially carving out the surface and applying the next stratum of color to the overall image. The raised surface that remains after each carving stage is inked and pressed to the paper, one color on top of another, each layer sometimes interacting with the underlying layers in interesting ways.
Thus, some of the prints, especially the images of insects and flowers, appear to pulsate with energy. Although the oil-based inks used by the artist are applied without modulation, the consecutive layering of one color upon another makes the wings of butterflies sometimes appear to flutter with energy and the petals of the flowers rustle as if set in motion by an imaginary breeze.
This brings us to the second category of layering exemplified in the current show: layer as a register of depth, as in the case of peeling away each layer to reach a deeper level of meaning. An initial stroll down the long second-floor gallery assigned to these works might lead the casual observer to dismiss the show as simply an assortment of attractive, representational images – vessels, moths, robes, flowers, portraits of Renaissance figures. A second or third perambulation accompanied by a more considered inspection of the works can help the viewer unlock the key to additional levels of understanding.
Indeed, the most successful works open a dialogue between the representational and the abstract. The closer the artist herself looks at her chosen subject, the more the observer is forced to confront its surface design, either natural or manmade. Patterning pleases the eye. Coherence offers an antidote to what may sometimes seem to be a chaotic world.
Consider “Into the Butterfly, Ten.” In this print, the magnified antennae, head, thorax and forewings are featured. That closeup perspective helps us appreciate the fact that the cylindrical head with its compound eyes and the lozenge-shaped thorax bear black markings that read like Egyptian hieroglyphics. From this glittering core speckled as well in an elaborate pattern of yellow and gold, the forewings fan out in green and yellow.
In the case of “Dogwood Flower #2,” Williams has enlarged the typically small petal-like bracts to fill the picture plane. The observer is thus compelled to engage in an intimate inspection of the subject. Radiating from the flower’s yellow pistil and stamens are four petals, celebrating the four points of the compass, curved at the ends and marked by striations not just in white but also green and gray.
As one might expect as well in the artist’s rendering of manmade objects – oriental robes, portraits and elaborately decorated vases – equally mesmerizing patterns emerge, many inspired by the regularities of form found in the natural world. There are, as examples, the interlocking honeycomb design to be found in “Robe Thirteen” and the concentric circles within the circle of the halo crowning the head of “Italian Beauties, No 9.”
All in all, the vibrantly colorful linocuts of Maryanna Williams offer visitors to the Columbia Museum of Art an exercise in the art of seeing, and the principal takeaway from this temporary exhibition is the recognition that design is all around us if we but take the time to open our eyes.
This exhibition runs through Dec. 29. One can combine a perusal of the Williams linocuts with a visit to “Van Gogh and His Inspirations,” the next blockbuster show at the CMA, scheduled from Oct. 4 to Jan. 12. In addition to 12 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh, that exhibition will feature 30 works by artists who influenced the great Post-Impressionist painter. The latter collection was amassed by Aiken’s very own Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.