Rather than ponder Platonic perfection, Peter Williams' exhibition of "Recent Works" at Clough-Hanson confronts the world in all its complex, ribald, multicultural, paradoxical glory. You'll find no vague shadows playing across stone walls in Williams' 48-by-60-inch painting Plato's Cave. Instead, stones shape-shift into montages of racial/sexual/cultural prejudice and dysfunction, including pornographic Aunt Jemimas and good-ole-boy sadism. Disembodied heads register awe, surprise, dismay, and horror.
In Williams' oil-on-panel portrait Plato, the Greek philosopher looks like a spunky, neurologically damaged street-fighter whose face has been beaten to a pulp on more than one occasion. Instead of meditating on ideals, Williams asks us to embrace the world as it is, to fight the good fight, to struggle to our last breath.
Williams' bald head and brawny torso are the same color and texture as boulders closing in on him from all sides in his relentlessly honest self-portrait of courage and mortality Dr. NO. His crosshatched, red-brown loins look like the soil beneath the stones. The lavender sky that backdrops his expressive mahogany face acknowledges life's profound beauty and pain.
At Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College through March 27th
In Laura Painter Stafford's exhibition "Presents in Creation" at Perry Nicole Fine Art, dollops of paint become a field of ruby-red flowers in Job 9:10-11. A church's bright-orange roof, thick stucco facade, and swaying architecture seem to move with the spirit of God in Psalm 68:35.
Instead of feeling stylized or too full of the trappings of religiosity, Stafford's love of the poetry of thanksgiving in Psalms, her thick paint, and childlike exuberance are powerfully disarming. We feel Stafford's excitement as she shapes her worlds, her joy as she beholds what she has wrought.
Also on view at Perry Nicole are Rod Moorhead's provocative pit-fired clay figures. These winged creatures are part fallen angel, part Greek deity, part muse, part temptress. Even as they tumble head-over-heels down the wall in Regret, even as they lose themselves in bittersweet passion in Last Dance with Mary Jane, their soft, searching faces suggest that, whatever their missteps, these creatures will learn from their experiences and move on.
At Perry Nicole Fine Art through March 31st
In the L Ross show "Ice Hockey Is For Abstract Painters Who Are Tired of Defending Formalism," Ryan VanderLey explores art history with humor and panache.
VanderLey frees himself from the demands of formalism in Greenberg Was Cut II, creates an abstraction that is both two- and three-dimensional in Neo-plastic Ice, and in Stone Field Was Alright takes one of minimalist Carl Andre's stones, plants it in a spring-green field, and breaks it wide open with slashes of turquoise and coral that look exotic and floral.
In the space- and mind-bending work I Saw That Stuff Over There, a wooden beam jutting out from the bottom allows us to "virtually" climb into the painting onto a warm brown ledge.
Steady yourself: This artwork becomes increasingly gestural and transparent as VanderLey splinters hockey sticks into expressive de Kooning-esque slashes and turns the ice into thin sheets that hover and glow like Mark Rothko's fields of color.
Instead of defending particular aesthetic positions, VanderLey incorporates line, form, color, content, and context into playful, philosophical wholes that are some of the freshest, most satisfying works seen this year.
At L Ross Gallery through March 30th
The hypnotic paintings of Susan Maakestad's exhibition "Traffic Land" at Material were inspired by traffic-camera images retrieved from the Internet. Maakestad's worlds are composed not of crisp-edged details but boundless space, ceaseless motion, and palettes that look like mixes of oil slicks, soot, night lights, sunrises, and sunsets.
In Mile Marker 3, we drive a long graceful arc of highway, swerve around a bend, and disappear into a purple-blue twilight. In Mile Marker 4, a broad, teal-green interstate narrows to a needle point beneath a soft-pink sky. And in Maakestad's particularly haunting Untitled — Night, we drive past a crumbling cement causeway in need of repair toward a gritty halo surrounding a polluted metropolis far in the distance.
At Material through April 10th