Cheerful Vision

The bright, colorful works of the late Owen Williams reflect the man's sunny disposition

Owen Williams' obituary last October got everything right.

It detailed the peregrinations in his life--from Douglas, Ariz., where he was born in 1935; to Tucson, where he went to the UA; to Texas, for dental school at Baylor; to the Navy; and back to Tucson. And it chronicled his unusual career trajectory, from practicing dentist to practicing artist. More importantly, the obit summed up the man himself, praising the "caliber of his heart, the clarity of his vision, the elegance of his life." And it noted that Williams wanted to be remembered "as a man who loved art and was kind to people."

A gracious, courtly soul, Williams was a gentleman of the old school and an indefatigable supporter of other artists. He invariably turned up at openings in town, with his white hair combed just so, a radiant smile lighting his face, and a personal greeting tailored to every individual there. (For me, it was always, "How is your daughter the dancer?")

Williams is gone, to a rather difficult death from pancreatic cancer, but his sunny disposition has been resurrected in a retrospective exhibition at the Temple Gallery. He was in this room so many times, you almost expect to see him over your shoulder, standing happily among his paintings.

Fittingly, the show is a cheerful vision of color, light and order. Most of the 42 works collected here share a DayGlo palette, intricate optical illusions and joyous shapes rocketing hither and yon.

"Untitled (Circle-Square)" is typical. Williams had two main themes here: He was playing both with the two geometric shapes and the contrast between warm and cool colors. Depending on how you look at it, from one angle, the painting is all circles in warm yellows, golds and reds. Another view, from the extreme right, yields up a series of nesting squares painted in cool greens, purples and blues.

Look at the work head-on, and you see the two color families meshing and the circles off-kilter, pressed into ovals. In fact, it's all an illusion: Only in your mind's eye are the circles perfect and the squares perfectly aligned.

The piece is one of the so-called "kinetic paintings" that were Williams' signature art form. He invented the technique years ago, first using the 3-D works as a fractured platform for optical illusions and other abstractions. As time went on, he painted narrative images on them, using their multiple surfaces to tell opposing parts of a story.

The technique dazzles all viewers with its precision. (Not for nothing was Williams a dentist.) The pieces have what amount to accordion pleats across their surface, with the paint going up and down the slopes of the pyramidal pleats. But they're not a continuous surface--the "pleats" are actually separate strips of angled wood or Plexiglas that Williams glued to the base in orderly rows. And he had to match up the images on each strip painstakingly with the image on the next so they would coalesce in the viewer's eye. They're "kinetic" because the paintings jump from ridge to ridge--and because the viewer has to jump around to see the kaleidoscope of images.

If you move the right way, you'll see at least three separate paintings in each work. Gaze at "Untitled (Abstract in Blue, Gold/Cream Border)" from the extreme right, and you'll find an intricate Escher abstraction of painted cubes in tan, purple and pale blue. Over on the left, the painted slats yield up a rocky landscape of sharp-edged natural shapes in purple and gold. Stand right in front, and the corrugated paint strokes combine into a delicious latticework of stripes and swirls.

The shiny "Untitled (Purple)" is as explosive and joyful as a kids' birthday party, but disciplined in a way such a gathering could never be. Glittery silver paper is laid out between the slats, and the slats themselves are clear Plexiglas, painted with exuberant ribbons of pink and purple.

In recent years, Williams moved on to printmaking. His process was still complicated; the gallery describes these prints as "fused pigment on metal" and "inkjet on metal." But they tend toward figurative rather than the dominant abstraction of the kinetic works gathered here. Still, there's the same brilliant color, the same delight in surface. Williams prizes the sheen of the metal below in these prints, and the luscious pooling of the pigments on top.

The images in the Colors, Signs, Symbols and Symbiosis print series are quite simple. "III, August 19, 2004," is a flat graphic of red and orange fruit in a bright blue bowl, posed against lime green on metal. "XXIX, July 20, 2005" has an orange dangling from a calligraphic black branch; "XIV, Dec. 10, 2004," black bird-like things on ocher.

"I think of them as pages in a small book of poems," Williams wrote when they were exhibited in the Temple Gallery in 2005, "or perhaps as a Technicolor Rorschach test. The images are purposely ambiguous, sometimes mysterious."

Williams had some late-life success with a more elaborate series that merged big birds, penguins and human figures into compositions made even more complex by collaged flowered fabric. With these interesting new works, he won a slot at a juried bird show at Tohono Chul, and a berth at last year's competitive Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art. Some of them--he called the series The Natural History of the Human Heart as a Singing Bird--are on view here. They marked an exciting new direction for Williams, but he ran out of time to see where they would take him. Now they serve as his epitaph.

Against a printed cloth background of blue flowers and peacocks, "The Natural History ... Part I" pictures an anatomical human figure, with the skin peeled away to reveal the organs inside. The red muscles and violet lungs are pictured, but in place of the heart is a brilliant yellow canary, singing.

In "The Natural History of the Human Heart as a Singing Bird, Part Two," the figure has turned his back to us. He's no longer among us. The flower-peacock cloth, now all pinks and blues, has replaced his human flesh. He's facing a midnight-blue night sky, filled with glowing stars and a crescent moon and a white planet. And the singing bird once at the figure's heart has flown the coop. It's winging its way out into the universe.

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