Marksmen and the Palimpsests: Strata of Precision, Process & Execution in the Works of John Avelluto and Josh Willis

by Paul D'Agostino

This essay was composed for the catalog accompanying Marksmen and the Palimpsests, an interstizio exhibit at Centotto featuring works by John Avelluto and Josh Willis.

Josh Willis crafting a panel for A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well. Photograph by Karilyn Johanesen.

Painting is not a copy of the Idea:
the Idea is the gesture of painting.
– Jean-Luc Nancy

Comprising two entirely new bodies of work executed specifically for this exhibit, as well as a suite of polysemous collaborative pieces conceived as the exhibit’s theme and aesthetic took shape, Marksmen and the Palimpsests showcases the most recent yields of the rigorously process-laden, unyieldingly precision-driven and ineluctably time-consuming studio practices and creative visions of John Avelluto and Josh Willis, two deeply skilled and insightful painters with whom it has been a pleasure to become acquainted, and whose works it has been an honor to display, at Centotto. At once a celebration and an acute investigation of these artists’ similarly discerning methodologies and the readily differentiable innovations resulting therefrom, Marksmen and the Palimpsests is also quite literally, indeed eponymously, an exploration of the variable palpability of exactitude, on the one hand, and layering, on the other. Yet for Avelluto and Willis, the stakes of their relatable practices extend well beyond the studio, beyond even the physicality and compositional parameters of the objects produced therein. For their common ground lies not only in meticulousness and painstaking detail, in stratification and objectified abstraction, but also in the parallel potency of the questions and challenges – at times defiant, at times acutely critical, at times parodic – that their unmistakably contemporary paintings pose to the storied traditions of the medium itself. It is thus the yields of Avelluto’s and Willis’ productive processes, the nature of their consistently raised stakes, and the cogency of their transfigurative critiques that Marksmen and the Palimpsests, and its accompanying expository essays, aim to assess.

For Avelluto and Willis, the only proper inquiry into the legion, even legendary ways and mores of what one might term the painterly tradition – intermittently deified and dismantled, claimed and shunned, marginalized and punned though it may often, and perhaps rightly so, be – is one that is holistic, unyielding, bold. As such, their processes are as much a matter of exploration as they are of reprocessing, and not merely in terms of subject matter, objective or not, or technique, visibly traceable or not. In a sense, in fact, their shared subject matter, their shared object of investigation, might well be the ramifiable import of a certain set of words, the variably ambiguous technical contingencies, that is, of some of painting’s most elemental terms of reference themselves: of both substantive and verbal applicability, both paint and painting can refer to acts and objects, the imagined consummation of which might readily foster assumptions about the act’s agent, the painter, on the one hand, and about the object’s technical genesis (in terms of the classically understood techné, or rationale or manner of production, that brings the object into being) on the other; such assumptions, then, polarize the adjective painterly, making of it a term of praise or denigration, a notion positively or negatively loaded or empty, meaningful or meaningless. In other words, one’s brushstrokes, one’s compositions, one’s palette or one’s techné in general might be now lauded, now lambasted as painterly; indeed, too painterly is well understood as something of an unwelcome, passively toxic critique.

In light of such potentially fraught semantics, and presupposing a set of rather orthodox beliefs regarding the practical and visual senses of the terms at hand, one might even, and not unjustifiably, elect to not call Avelluto and Willis painters, to not reference their practice as painting, to not classify many of their works – albeit executed quite entirely via the visio-plastic vernacular of paint – as paintings. Such a referential election, however, or predilection, as it were, carries with it certain advantages, for the assumption that painterly terminology might be somehow insufficient with regard to these painters does indeed beg some crucial questions: What should one call Avelluto and Willis, if not painters? What should one seek out in their paintings? What of particular questionability lies beneath, or atop, their painted works?

Holistically painted though they in fact are, John Avelluto’s variably dimensioned creations might well be called, quite simply, sculptures.  His operation, an effort whose time-consuming nature stems as much from the material needs of the medium he employs as from the ultimately highly detailed manner in which he deploys and permutes it, entails additive layered build-ups, mold-like structuring and, at times, subtractive interventions in the forging and manipulation of meticulously crafted objects – e.g. wood panels, various types and weights of paper, linoleum blocks and a host of mixed comestibles – so convincing, so shockingly verisimilar, that the term trompe l’oeilseems here quite inadequate. He renders not only the precise colors and contours of wood grain, for example, but also goes back with fine brushes to incise therein the dendrological grooves of wood vein. Not only do apparently erased pencil marks, on what appear to be standard sheets of notebook paper, seem to have been laboriously rubbed away, but the imaginable, or imaginary eraser also appears to have left behind its rubber-dust type vestiges, the faux-effectuated act’s detrital remains. Given Avelluto’s layering of procedures and materials whose eventual yields suggest a layering of purely conjectural events, it follows suit that a viewer’s interaction with his works is layered as well. At the very least, one passes from curiously incredulous to conciliatorily impressed.

John Avelluto, I.C.U.P., detail.

Notions of veritable legerdemain aside, Avelluto’s only medium employed in all this, at each variably phasic instant, is paint. Though his tools may vary widely and even, at certain stages, involve brushes, his sculpted forms consist solely of acrylic colors and mediums. As such, Avelluto’s fundamentally plastic process of shaping multifarious simulacra out of acrylic paints, themselves essentially plastic, recalls Roland Barthes’ description, in an essay called “Plastic,” of the curious processes and yields made realizable by this strange substance: the “alchemy” of plastic is “the transmutation of matter” into “startling objects” that make of “original matter” a profound “enigma.”2 Emerging from well-honed modes of similarly ostensible though fully manual “alchemy,” Avelluto’s paintings might be simultaneously construed as the work of a painter, a sculptor and a trickster. The series of acrylic-paint-rendered objects he has produced for Marksmen and the Palimpsests, collectively titled Loose Leaf, a formulaically deconstructionist set of twenty individually morphed, inscribed, art-historically layered and, with discrete variance, culturally and self-referentially palimpsestic sheets of ruled notebook paper – as well as the five faux skins of ersatz vellum overlays he created for Palimpsests, the collaborative pieces between himself and Willis – are, without doubt, indicative of the painterly “enigmas” of which his subtle hand, with sly sleight, is capable; they are exemplary of the often indiscernible deceit behind his “alchemy.” To be sure, Avelluto’s now visibly, now invisibly stratified surfaces – the variably observable depths of his plastically rendered objects frozen in a state of plastically liminal reality – are deeply, exemplarily deceptive.

If the manual mechanics of Avelluto’s current work might be likened to that of a painstaking sculptor creating, of acrylic paint, counterfeit objects more typically produced by machines, then the similarly painstaking yet differently mimetic mechanics of Josh Willis’ works might be considered one of conceiving, devising and enacting the very manufactural processes of a machine itself. Indeed, as Willis tasks himself with the designing and often repetitive execution of serialized projects whose individual iterations might number in the dozens or hundreds, his studio regime nearly requires him to become the muscle-memory-empowered components of a mechanized body. Quite despite such anthropo-mechanical processes, however – despite the rigorously layered parameters within which Willis mechanizes, delimits and formally, in various ways, impedes himself – the particularized realization and scrupulous polish of his creative products are anything but mechanically feasible, his act anything but mechanico-painterly machination.

If not a painter then perhaps an empiricist, Willis sets conditions, concocts puzzles, conducts experiments; the resident layers of his works are procedural as well as material. These conditioned layers, however, are also metatextual, interdisciplinary and art historical. In the conceptualization of A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well, for instance, a series of thirty paintings he made for a previous Centotto simposio exhibit,3 Willis gave himself the calendric structure of producing a painting a day for one month; he determined his palette by inserting into the Pantone Matching System the numbers drawn in each day’s New York Lottery, then replicated those colors with pigments; and he determined the sharply contoured, low-relief floral images for each painting by consulting each day’s entry in a 19th century almanac of garden flowers, Flora’s Dial, by J. Wesley Hanson. The specific passing of those thirty days, then, remains documented not only in the collection of works that resulted, but also in the layers of composition-determining information that impressed temporal specificity upon each individual piece. While such internal data might not be readily visible, the works’ veneer does implore further questioning. That is, since each painting is ultimately monochromatic, the viewer is lured to interact with the series to glimpse its richness: at a certain centered distance, one sees the paintings as variably rectangular arrangements of blocks of delicately somber hues; as one moves closer, and perhaps glancing at angles, the smooth low-relief floral surfaces begin to shimmer, morphing the blocks into a veritable garden of individualized blossoms.

Josh Willis, A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well. Detail.

In the series of paintings Willis produced for Marksmen and the Palimpsests, collectively titled Towers, the underlying points of reference for all of the works – now notionally, now readily perceptible in each – are at once the socio-critical and landscape elements of a painting by Gustave Courbet, Young Women of the Village Giving Alms to a Cowherd (1852), and the profoundly metaphorical subject matter and compositionally centered thrust of The Tower of Babel (1563), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Drawn to both of these paintings, and indeed to both of these painters, both for what they represent and how they represent it, Willis selected certain aspects from each, internalized those norms, then reprocessed them into stratified meta-representations of incipient disarray in a structurally detached world, of troubled sunlight and ominous clouds that both herald and seize the peril of an imminent storm. Trapped here in its looming, in other words, catastrophe looms; yet what is also captured here is the process behind all this, itself a great litany of overlaying and excavational procedures, of self-obscuring palimpsestic modes, of formalized self-intervening into forms. Indeed, Willis’ task was far from mere appropriation and mnemonic re-representation of Bruegel’s biblical Tower superimposed onto a socio-critically charged landscape by Courbet. His process entailed, rather, in short writ: the build-up, in broad strokes of oil paint, of approximated forms; the cutting away, with a broad-blade knife, of protrusions in those forms; the filling in of those deformed forms’ consequent niches with dark pigment; the sanding away and flattening of the traces of those steps; the repeating, over and over, of this entire procedure until the surface was fit for layers of varnish; and a final round of oil-painted detail atop those layers, followed by yet another round of varnishing.

In terms of subject matter and process alike, then, one might find Willis’ visions in these works, his somewhat empirically rendered re-envisionings, unsettling. And rightly so, for they are not settled, they are not inert. One does not sense that something perhaps devastating has already happened, nor that something has yet to take place. One senses, rather, that something is happening. Captured in this active verb tense, in other words, the event is frozen in its taking place. This is, indeed, the defining event of these ambiguous, perennially metaphorical forms: rather than already rendered apart, these Towers of Babel are here being rendered asunder, or rendering themselves into ruin. The nearly jarring notion, indeed the terror of a painter slicing into his work becomes here the chilling vision of unknown terror in the works.

It is thus here, perhaps, in the idea of painters or paintings in the works, that this discussion of the stratified precision, layered processes and gestural exactitude of Avelluto and Willis comes full circle. It is at this juncture, indeed, that one might finally elect, with informed conviction, to characterize Avelluto as a dexterously detail-driven sculptor or an eye-fooling trickster; one might now elect, with similar certainty, to categorize Willis as a machine-like crafter of fine-tuned experiments. After all, their readily differentiable processes may seem to carry their works in general, and specifically those produced for this exhibit, rather far afield from standardized understandings of a so-called painterly tradition. Yet their medium of choice places them very firmly therewithin, and it is, without doubt, this very tradition that they both seek – through their incisive fabrications of progressions and methodologies, through their techné consisting of catechistic strata of meticulous tasks to be carried out, through the marks they leave visible or seal behind variable successions of palimpsestic layerings – to question, to challenge, to critique. Of course, one might also elect to eschew the logic or importance of such labels of creative agency; one might prefer, instead, to simply gaze upon and ponder these artists’ polished works, hidden meanings and art-historical references. Yet one would still do well to consider, and perhaps semantically stretch, this aforementioned notion of painters or paintings in the works: it is invariably in their works, that is – in the very procedural grit and finely mediated grain of their paintings – that Avelluto and Willis not only remain, ultimately, painters, but also, in the layered gestures inherent to their processes, imbue painting with irrefutably contemporary ideas, if not a jointly novel Idea, of primacy. Herein, then, is the proper critical space in which to flesh out the Jean-Luc Nancy citation in this essay’s epigraph:

If the Idea is the form of forms inasmuch as they take form, inasmuch as they space themselves out and configure themselves freely, that is, according to the surprise of an ordering whose calculation defies all operation, then the first Idea was a painting and the first painting was an Idea. Painting is not a copy of the Idea: the Idea is the gesture of painting.4             

In their medium of choice, then, and in the potent questions they pose thereto and therewith, Avelluto and Willis are most certainly painters who aim to further painting, in some sense, through their uncompromising gestures. For this specific exhibit, however, one has resolved to label both of these artists – in light of the precision-driven nature of their processes and their ever-exacting modes of execution – marksmen. As such, whether or not the three bodies of work in this exhibit convey anything of traditionally or intrinsically painterly import regarding paint, painters or paintings, we at Centotto hope you enjoy viewing and contemplating the painted objects by each of these consummate marksmen as well as their collaborative palimpsests.

Thank you very much, grazie mille, for your amicizia and interest.

Josh Willis crafting a panel for A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well. Photograph by Karilyn Johanesen.


1 Jean-Luc Nancy, “Painting in the Grotto,” The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996) 78.

2 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 97.

3 The simposio is Centotto’s indirect, language-based curatorial approach by which featured artists are asked to select and submit works according to varying textual and titular parameters. Specifically, their pieces must respond to the tripartite discursive framework formed by a given show’s bivalent exhibition title and its required reading assignment. Within this triangle of potential discourse, therefore, is where exhibited works reside, and artists are required to provide brief statements to place their works semantically therein. The simposio exhibit in which Willis exhibited A Foot in the Garden, a Foot in the Well was called Impart to the Product / Part of the Process? or Quest, Phantom, Vestigium. For more information, please consult the corresponding descriptions and images at

4 Jean-Luc Nancy, op. cit.