William Wray’s Seemingly Straightforward Building Portraits Tell a Deeper Story

There isn’t one person in artist William Wray’s urban landscape solo show at Sue Greenwood Fine Art. It seems appropriate, the artist giving more attention to the skyscrapers, trailer parks, houses and cityscapes; by focusing on the buildings, he’s giving the routine we might not otherwise notice a gravity, a personality, that would disappear altogether if human beings were introduced into the mix.

Curated by gallery owner Sue Greenwood, “William Wray: New Work” is showing in only one room and a front window, and that’s more than enough. The meditative quality of the architectural portraits asks us to take our time with them, and more work would interfere with that, giving us too much to take in and look at. Blocked in complementary colors, Wray’s paintings are completely alien from what we would expect from standard brick and mortar: A square of teal amid a pastel yellow on one side of a building, another side in dark blue and purple shadow, bleeding down into the traffic on the street below (SF #2). There are no faces or figures in the cars; the buses, delivery trucks and sedans as boxy as the yolky gold of the building behind them, a small rectangle of ruby red suggesting the signal light on a passing car. That color—and the two smudges of abstract birds at the top of a streetlight—is the only life in what otherwise could be looked at as a place of desolation.

Wray’s ruler-straight lines are plentiful, sharp enough to inform what we’re looking at, but expressionistic enough that the work doesn’t do any hand-holding. As much a carving as a painting, the oil-on-wood Phenomenon has thin strips of color cut out of its soft blue paint, the outline of a faraway city that glows with the same orange streaks that haunt the sky. In Congregation, we can see the faint suggestion of windows in a clump of buildings, the pale glass scraped out of the thick paint with the artist’s palette knife; it’s a city full of the moldy orange and gray of dead tree leaves, an autumn heap waiting for a fire to wipe it from memory. Bold brushstrokes of muddy purple, pink and gray are used to powerful effect, giving us a series of foreboding skyscrapers in Crystal City that resemble grave markers instead of buildings.

The canvases are full of these suggestive shapes and colors: In the tiny cityscape at bottom right of LA Sunset, a blimp hovers in the yellow and whites, while above is a polluted clot of rusted clouds in the steel blue sky. A square blast of solid white registers as light reflecting off a storefront window (Enterprise); the ad on a billboard is a gray-and-red block of paint, ads seen from farther away a blur of white and beige (Suburbia); the crisscross of languorously draped telephone wires disappearing off canvas, opposite streaks of green staircase bannisters (Pulpit). It took me several moments to put together what I was looking at in Ledge. At first, I saw the dock of an empty warehouse, then the smoking pinks and purples in the sky resembled remnants of a fire. Finally, I saw the stripped-down image of a two-story home and have no concrete idea what I’m looking at.

Wray’s work isn’t limited to the urban, either, as at home in an exquisitely tragic Salton Sea mobile-home park as he is in an alleyway. Bombay Beach‘s unassuming capture of aqua, turquoise and teal homes roasting amid the sun-bleached desert oranges and sharp whites is as marvelous as his contemplation of the filthy asphalt, eye-like alley windows, and the mysterious brown ooze that’s dripping off a fence near a trash bin in Back Alley, Monrovia. Wray even channels Hitchcock in Wake the Flood, the image angled at a tilt, as if the dilapidated buildings pictured are being poured out onto the floor; the sky dim, thin and spotty, the ground water-damaged, the no-longer-solid earth losing its capacity to support.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to offer up the idea that Wray is the Fight Club of painters, the quiet grandeur of his cities suggesting they’ve been battered into submission by time, abuse and the elements. Wray’s brush loves every bruise in the blues and purples, the fresh slap and the enflamed skin of the soft pinks and glaring reds, the explosion of white and yellow light that bounces from the walls and roofs in the middle of the day like the shower of stars that occurs after a punch in the face.

“William Wray: New Work” at Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-0669; www.suegreenwoodfineart.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through June 30. Free.

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