William Cannings is the master of optical illusion. The England-born sculptor got to Texas as fast as he could – living and working in Lubbock with a steady gig as a professor of sculpture at Texas Tech's School of Art. The illusionist produces pieces that look like balloons, inner tubes, beach balls and other lighter-than-air objects but which, in actuality, are constructed of aluminum and steel.
His technique – to sandwich two pieces of metal together, seal the edges, and then under- or over-inflate – has evolved over the years, and he's experimented with polished finishes, pastels, saturated brights and automotive paint.
Works on view in his new “Luster Cluster” exhibit at Anya Tish Gallery have a decidedly darker mood than the summery, beachy pieces of years past. Five of the wall-mounted sculptures look like faces, an unpredictable effect created when inflating the metal, with the rubber valve ending up in different spots on each head.
Mask I and Mask III are coated with a glossy black and Mask II has a sparkly gold finish, while the spooky Mask IV looks as if it could light up a dark hallway with a phosphorescent glow. The artist doesn't mind if viewers touch the pieces, which hold up well in the elements, and has included a few pieces finished with the Kameleon brand of automotive paint. The finish imbues a sparkly, reflective quality that seems to change color as the light bounces off its light and shadows, as in the bulbous head in Trophy II.
The color-changing properties of the finish are even more apparent in larger pieces, like the absinthe-hued Applejack (think of the little metal stars found in a child's game of jacks, but super-sized to a 30-inch height), or the pair of bubble wands tall enough to gaze through: the curved Arc and the upright Centered.
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Cannings hasn't eliminated the beachy themes from his vocabulary. What appear to be children's arm floaties are suspended from the ceiling in a colorful candy-colored array in Swarm, and in the back room are two pastel-colored beach balls from one of his earlier exhibits. While elements from his Silver Clouds site-specific installation from 2009 have been acquired and replenished over the years, its latest incarnation is on view in the back room. As a child, Cannings was inspired by the ethereal Silver Clouds by Billy Kluver and Andy Warhol.
Other shapes on view include carrot-like sculptures (the orange Leaning and eggplant-colored Assymetric), the wall-mounted pointed tips of Trophy I and Trophy III, and a smaller Purple Pillow. There's one floor-mounted piece that seems to defy gravity: a large square pillow cut in half and reassembled at its outer corners. The resulting double-tornado balancing act interacts with the light because of its Kameleon finish and curves.
Cannings is a returning artist at Anya Tish Gallery, appearing in several group shows, as well as solo shows in 2012 (“MetalUrges”), 2009 (“Inflatable Infatuation”), 2007 (“Consequence”) and 2005 (“Gathered, Squeezed, Popped”). He also joins another Houston artist who sent a sculpture to the Poydras Corridor in New Orleans. Cannings's whimsical Stacked V (five colorful pillows, each four feet in height, stacked and reaching for the sky) is on view along the same corridor that housed Patrick Renner's Funnel Tunnel last year.
“Luster Cluster” continues through October 8 at Anya Tish Gallery, 4411 Montrose, open Tuesdays to Fridays 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-524-2299, anyatishgallery.com. Free.