CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Material world: Williams goes beneath the surface

Forget what T.S. Eliot said about April— when it comes to art, August is the cruelest month. Not much new opens, the ongoing exhibitions tend to be a hash of group shows, and quite a few galleries simply shut down for the last two weeks of the month. Not to mention it's sluggishly hot... Must... fight... lethargy...

My cure for sagging eyelids: Jump in the car and drive east to the Arts Center in Orange, which is currently displaying Nebraska artist Sandra Williams' lively– or, more truthfully, used-to-be-lively– exhibition, "The History of Zero." Although primarily a painter, Williams incorporates an array of materials– bones, wood, fabric, teeth, dead bugs(!)– in eight oversized pieces that prod viewers' sense of nostalgia.

Coated in shiny lacquer and framed by thick black edges, Williams' multi-layered images draw inspiration from 17th century vanitas paintings' material evocations of grief and loss. Williams, however, expresses something visually akin to the "magical realism" found in Latin American literature, where everyday scenes veer into the fantastic. 

In "Deadly Nightshade," for instance, three women sew together, sitting against a black background blooming with large tropical flowers. Benign and domestic, the piece nevertheless carries a whiff of witchcraft– reinforced by the startling realization that the left figure's gold shirt is actually swimming with anchovy-like fish, while feathers comprise the right figure's blouse.

Creepier, in "Sir," a flat, cartoon-like man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a rumpled brown suit sits in front of yellowing, pieced-together floral wallpaper. Suddenly, the viewer becomes aware the man's suit is crawling with giant Madagascan hissing cockroaches suspended in resin. The effect is jolting– repulsive yet compelling. 

Given Williams' attention to surfaces and textures, it's easy to overlook her dexterity as a painter. Using a wide-ranging palette, intensified by the overlay of resin, the artist's deft brushwork is both adventurous and bold. She also manages to find a strange-yet-satisfying middle ground between two and three dimensions in many of her compositions.

Perhaps the most accessible piece in the show is the seemingly straightforward "Two Small Dogs: Boo and Atticus." Against a saturated azure background, two little dogs face each other like bookends, turning their heads to engage the viewer with expressions and body stances that amusingly suggest the twin masks of tragedy and comedy.

Williams' colorful, cryptic evocations and incorporation of unexpected materials make "The History of Zero" as startlingly fresh as a hailstorm on a sweltering August day.

Sandra Williams' exhibition, "The History of Zero," is on view at The Arts Center in Orange through September 29. 129 E. Main St., Orange. 540-672-7311.