December 5-11, 2002
In Bryan Willette’s recent work, now in a show at Bella Vista’s B Square Gallery, many peculiar and broad-ranging allusions are evident, from sincere religious meditations to pop genres like record covers, advertising and softcore porn, not to mention a vision he attributes to excessive dental pain. Willette, a veteran punk rocker who now resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, makes art of complicated intensity in a style inspired by Netherlandish primitive painters.
The 18 luminous oil-on-panel paintings on display are clearly the focus of Willette's creative efforts. (Along with the paintings, there are six prints and two stained-glass pieces.) His jewel-like paintings are all extremely small, around 10 inches by 4 inches, painted in pure, bright colors and encased in elaborate gilded frames. Willette's subjects are adult human beings, neither young nor old, represented frontally in a narrow, vertical pictorial space along with a variety of symbolic attributes. The Second Son, for example, shows a nude man held captive by a three-headed blue cobra. He stands on pink gravel in front of an overgrown Gothic ruin. In Oracle of Roses, a beautiful painting that would also make a great perfume ad, a nude woman with long black hair flecked with gray happily pulls open the flesh on her chest to reveal a mass of red roses. The figures in these paintings are all iconlike and the anatomical expression is somewhat schematic -- though the men are always well-hung and the women large-breasted.
In one intriguing series of paintings, Willette employs a more personal narrative and symbols that are less cryptic and more deeply engaging. In this series he explores a convoluted allegory of rebirth through five images depicting a ritualistic flaying and reconstitution. The Second Skin Struck from the Chosen begins the story with two angels robed in purple calmly stripping the skin off a cooperative nude man. The next painting in the series shows the skinless écorché neatly consumed by flames. Then, in The Shadow Skin Made Sacred, the empty skin is stuffed with white lilies and stitched back together by a crowd of draped and nude figures. Next, the hero is reanimated and spiritually recharged, and the series ends with him seated on a throne surrounded by heavenly hosts. In these paintings, and much of his other new work, Willette is more consciously and successfully integrating religious symbolism, eroticism and popular culture; ultimately, he finds resolution in a kind of brooding self-examination.