Originally published in NewCity
Gallery X at Linda Warren Projects is a room within a room, a kind of inner sanctum for weary pilgrims traveling through the West Loop. Its modest dimensions proceed no more than several paces in any direction, and so the space concentrates the force of the works on display. There’s no room to hide here; weak shows tend to feel excessively so, while strong ones wash over you like the invigorating wind that precedes a thunderstorm.
For William Kohler’s restful and restorative “Alchemy + Elements,” the journey of the believer and the sanctity of the gallery are apt metaphors. Featuring a taut selection of ten painterly works that explore themes of physical change and spiritual growth—and moreover, painting’s ability to transcend the mundane—Kohler’s images are a welcome respite from a summer soaked in horror and tragedy.
“Gate by the Sea” is the show’s pivotal work and its symbolic starting point. Hemmed in by muted and mysterious orange trilithons, these twin guardians stand watch over a threshold inviting viewers to cross, while beyond, gray ocean waves lap upon a distant shore. Historically, the gate represented the act of initiation, and to pass through it, the believer was purified and transformed. But the believer must be deemed worthy of the effort. Without faith, the act was meaningless.
Once through Kohler’s looking glass, each picture ceases to be a mere amalgam of oil and linen. Instead, the artist’s brush offers us a glimpse into an otherworldly place of red “Messengers” and sacred “Green Mounds.” The colorful piles of flotsam in the Guston-like “Waiting to be Found” or the long shadow in the de Chirico-esque “For the Sun” demand our consideration, but offer no clear resolution.
That painting can show us new realities and point toward higher spiritual states seems a quaint notion lost in the self-reflexivity of much contemporary work. Almost by default, we envision art as a cultural mirror, reflecting nothing more than what we already know. More than ever, we need works like Kohler’s; images that show us not where we are, but rather, where we could be.