Certain artists will always be associated with one particular motif.
For many years, and despite a body of work that encompassed everything from Liz Taylor to electric chairs, Andy Warhol was best known for his soup cans. And the late George Rodrigue’s omnipresent Blue Dogs have largely overshadowed the rest of his considerable oeuvre.
In Paul Villinski’s case, it’s butterflies.
Created in the dozens and even hundreds from materials such as discarded beer cans and vinyl records, Villinski’s winged creatures have covered walls and objects in several gallery and museum shows throughout New Orleans over the past decade or so and have created an instantly recognizable signature motif for the artist.
In a broader sense, however, Villinski’s work has always been more about transformation, for which the butterflies served as a succinct metaphor.
And “Departure,” his new show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, sees Villinski expanding his visual repertoire to further explore the concept.
Two large winged wall pieces in the main gallery explicitly reference the concept of departure.
Made of dozens of found articles of clothing, the objects recall experimental contraptions by Leonardo da Vinci or the Wright Brothers and look ill-equipped for actual flight, which makes them that much more affecting.
The splattered wax encaustic that covers the Icarus-like “Hypothesis” (along with a good part of the adjacent wall and floor) adds a further poignant human element to the piece, and also reminds viewers of Villinski’s training as a painter before he started focusing on sculptural works.
Another piece made of dozens of discarded liquor bottles bound together with lengths of leather belts plays off the different meanings of the word “belt” (as both an article of clothing and a shot of alcohol, as in a “belt of whisky”), and as a kind of self-portrait that represents Villinski’s own experience with substance abuse and addiction.
It’s a powerful visual reminder of the fact that belts are also objects that simultaneously constrain and support, even if that support is eventually revealed to be just a crutch.
But butterflies aren’t absent from Villinski’s new works. In “Fallen” they seem to occupy the hollow armature of a human figure — or are they descending upon it in order to bear it aloft and take it somewhere far away?
That ambiguity is further echoed in “Ghost,” a piece constructed of models of 30 species of butterflies and moths that are endangered or have already become extinct. “Ghost” becomes a somberly elegant meditation on loss and ephemerality. (Villinski worked with a lepidopterist to get the identifications correct.)
Painted white and pinned to a white wall, their shapes are most clearly legible by the shadows they cast: presence defined by absence.
Butterflies also appear in a piece that reads as Villinski’s wry take on the American landscape tradition: Looking through the red, white and blue assemblage of found objects, the view is all police barricades and beer cans. It’s a gently sardonic note in a show otherwise characterized by a restrained sense of hope, and that constitutes Villinski’s strongest and most cohesive body of work to date.
Elsewhere in the gallery, Nikki Rosato’s mind-blowing wall pieces in which roads and highways become the vascular systems of mysteriously twinned human figures are formidable conceptual and formal counterparts to Villinski’s work.
Meticulously cut and reassembled from road atlases, Rosato’s ethereal skeins of paper reflect the ways in which memory and identity continuously inform and shape one another — and are astoundingly intricate works of art in their own right, especially given their large scale.
And viewed in conjunction with Villinski’s similarly deeply considered work, they’re potent reminders of that fact that where you’ve been is just as important as where you’re going.
John d’Addario writes about art. Contact him at email@example.com.