The Page Bond Gallery on West Main Street occupies a well-proportioned, minimalist, and warehouselike space with walls painted a shade of ice-box white. A brutalist, poured concrete cube, 15 by 15 feet, that houses office and conference space, dominates the middle of the basketball court-sized gallery. The current show, "Color- Caste- Denomination," a dozen minimalist paintings and sculptures by Will Berry, an American artist who divides his time between Mexico City and Nashville, appears tailored to this environment.
A particularly enticing painting, "Untitled" (2011), lures and holds the eye with its built-up surface consisting of layers of thick, white gesso. Like the aesthetic of the room in which it hangs, the work is minimalist, at least at first glance. Staying focused, however, deeper layers —real or imagined — begin to appear. These subtle shapes, forms, or waves, all but pulsate just beneath the surface, not quite at boil. The longer I look, the richer, sublime even, the experience becomes. The nuanced work is composed of more materials than at first apparent: oxidized aluminum leaf over gesso over linen, all mounted on a cedar panel.
Suddenly, my Will Berry, minimalist moment -- trance, really -- is broken by the memory of something I'd read the day before about viewing works by an artist from another era, Tintoretto, whose work is the polar opposite of Berry's Zen-like pieces. Works by the Venetian-born and Renaissance-era Tintoretto, who was a megastar in the 16th century, comprise an unprecedented exhibit of his work that opens this week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Tintoretto paintings contain hyper-energetic imagery of the Holy Family, saints, sinners who are lit with celestial light.
So aside from both painters being masterful, what connected them in my mind?
It was what the National Gallery's director, Kaywin Feldman, said about the immediacy of experiencing art objects such as the Tintorettos: "People really care about seeing original works of art now," she told The New York Times, "The No. 1 comment I get is: 'I really can't believe this is the original, and I can walk right up to it.'"
Similarly, regardless of the tightest photographic reproduction, there is no way one could experience a Will Berry painting without going right up to it.
If Berry's "Untitled" was for me the showstopper of his Richmond exhibition, the piece is indicative of the depths to which the artist goes to squeeze the essence of tradition and meaning out of each work. Where some artists seek to add elements, Berry stays calm.
And in this exhibition Berry proves that he is capable of more than extraordinary surfaces. The forms of his sculptures reveal that he was once a practicing architect and spent many hours at the drawing board — yes, he's probably old enough to remember those — before fully devoting himself to making art. His aluminum sculptural pieces, which would work equally well on a much larger scale, started out as rectangular and square sheets of aluminum that he folded adeptly at the corners to create spatial forms.
Despite the minimalism of Berry's work, viewers are aware that he has arrived at this confident spot in his development from developing a deep sense the history and artistic traditions — often vernacular — that provide common threads internationally, regardless of cultural traditions or languages. Therefore, he isn't averse to including, or repeating the simplest patterns in his work. In "Untitled," a 2015 diptych in graphite, gesso and linen on cedar panel, there are tightly rendered underdrawings of small triangles attached to each other—akin to the architectural and engineering rhythms of Buckminster Fuller. "Untitled" from 2018, contains four rust-hued triangles formed by two crossing lines.
Berry's work is smart and quiet, born of thought, contemplation, travel, and importantly, an apparent appreciation for the cultural forces that shape a community. His abstract work can be as hard and bold as Stonehenge, or as graceful and tender as a Mary Cassatt painting of mother and child. There is a lot to see, but one must look. In a world in which our electronic devices keep us occupied and dazzled whether behind the wheel, dining, lazing on the patio or lying in bed, Berry's work aims for something timeless, seamless and reassuring. The greater the cacophony of your world, the greater the experience of witnessing his soothing works.
Absorbing Berry's work requires adjusting the personal decibel level, and looking, really looking, until you find yourself absorbed in the quiet eloquence of his masterfully layered works.
"Color-Caste-Denomination: Will Berry" is at the Page Bond Gallery, 1625 W. Main St. through March 30. 359-3633.