by Marshall L. Fallwell, Jr.
Will Rhodarmer and I sit in half darkness drinking coffee with a strong undertaste of molasses. We are in a funky, sixties-looking, private coffee bar by the railroad tracks on Chestnut Street, an area fast becoming another Left Bank for artists and musicians, famous and not-yet-famous. Eventually, they find their way here for the coffee or the music or company or just to be left alone—no autographs, please. Will and I meet there because his paintings are on the walls and he helped design the place.
Rhodarmer is Dutch for red sleeves, i.e. butcher, he says—in Will’s case red paint on his sleeves rather than blood of beasts. “Red Sleeves” isn’t a nickname, only an interesting translation and, as it seems, an astute comment on his work ethic.
We speak of art, Will mentioning his version of the sublime state of creativity he calls the Zone. Now, every artist has at least heard of the Zone. But I ask about his anyway—the eternal question—because, as I study his paintings on the walls with one eye and him with the other, I want to know how he makes his art and where his head or his heart is, whatever he paints with. Tennis players, he says, say the Zone is where you don’t even have to think about hitting the ball—you just smack it and it goes there.
Will is an Air Force brat who somehow managed to grow up mostly in the Nashville area. At his mother’s urgings, he started painting when he was still a youngster. One suspects he knew the Zone even back then, maybe by another name.
He helped put himself through MTSU, major in art and design, by selling his drawings of historic Murfreesboro door to door in the very neighborhoods the drawings depicted. Life happened. Will flourished as an art director, designer, and entrepreneur. He now has a wife, a stepson, and his own home in Nashville.
He paints steadily, at this point in life slip-sliding nimbly in and out of that holy of holies, the Zone. But unlike Sunday artists, Will doesn’t wait for the Zone to enrapture him. In fact, work has become the Zone, and work is not an ethereal, fugue state you wait around for so you can find an excuse to load your brush.
“No magic to it, really,” he says. “I paint every day. I’m not a starving artist. I sell a lot of paintings. I even rent them. That one over there [he points to Nashville Cityscape No. 3] is in the new pilot TV show about Nashville.
“It’s all in the editing anyway,” he says. “Anybody can paint, but it’s what you do to the painting as it happens and after it’s already there that makes it come alive.”
We move closer to Nashville Cityscape No. 3, Will leaning into the painting to show me how he works his surfaces. From a distance, the buildings look distorted, crowded, as if they were dancing. Nashville’s “Bat Building” bulges out from the rest as if through a very wide-angle lens. Perspectives are convoluted, lines not straight nor angles square, and there is a sense of agitation. Up close, however, the surface of the paint is scratched and even mutilated by hard edges, brush handles, pencils, whatever tools or weapons are at hand. The surface is carved, distressed, pulled and pushed around, mashed and molded as if it were clay or some pliable material, the resulting surfaces a moonscape of optical tricks.
Then, as one moves back again away from the painting, one sees these micro effects merge into a frenzy of reflective surfaces, thousands of tiny
mirrors leaning in all directions, collectively refracting the light in ways that make the whole image pulsate, crawl, squirm with hallucinatory motion—the “shimmering reality” of Buddhism and particle physics.
What Will is onto is a kinetic technique quite unlike anything I’ve seen. His abstract works echo the technique—from a distance, the joy of movement, but up close, the jagged chaos of movement itself.
Precursors? Many. Da Vinci, Raphael, Munch, Turner, Van Gogh. Traditionally, though, movement has been suggested through the application of the paint itself, impasto, color, line, undercoats, and so on. But Will delivers a methodological hybrid limitless in its connotations, subtle on a macro scale but violent and a little fearsome on a micro scale. Perhaps a door has opened, and the continuing dialogue with the past that is art has turned another corner.
“Art isn’t about anything but itself,” Will reminds me. “Any narrative gleaned from a painting is the viewer’s work. And they should work. I do. All I ask is that they pay as much attention to my paintings as they do to a song on the radio.
“Remember,” he says, “the scratch is the next drip.