Ode to O’s

Minimalist show packs a wallop at Kiang

A highly excitable letter, the letter “O,” from orgasm to exclamation to a naughty piece of French erotica. Painter/sculptor Jim Waters’ show, New Work, humorously highlights the showbiz-y razzmatazz in that saucy vowel.

In Waters’ mixed-media works on display at Kiang Gallery, the artist has swabbed his graphic typeface-style O’s in a crust of colorful glitter and backlit the excitable orbs in a pink, blue, green pastel range of shadow. Pinned to the gallery wall, this profusion of O’s looks like high art signage — an ad for something Fresh! Something New! Something Now! Though the shadows cast by the colorful O’s, tricked out in lilac and fabric softener blue, give the impression of neon, the effect is far more low-tech: a combination of lighting and fluorescent paint.

Ranging in height from 8 inches to 4 feet, these sculptural works immediately recall the signage that populates the American consumer consciousness: the mega-alphabets cresting grocery stores, Laundromats or movie theaters. The combination of emphatic glitz and a neon-ish glow renders Waters’ lustrously razzle-dazzle shapes positively Vegas.

The delightful crux of Waters’ work is how it boils down all of that suggestive showmanship by adopting the pared-down vocabulary of minimalism. The hook of the show is how neatly, with a maximum of wit and a minimum of special effects, Waters comments upon every showman and Main Street businessman’s bylaw. A fresh coat of paint, some well-placed neon, the Pepsodent gleam bouncing off a cowboy’s teeth constitute the trick bag of glamour and excitement. An exegesis of showbiz, these advertisements for nothing at all hum, nevertheless, with the wham-bam, kapowee drumrolls of a whole panoply of sales and showmanship strategies.

Though Waters’ O’s can subtly change their associations when they are tilted or tipped — evoking a cat’s eye marble or a cartoon spaceman’s helmet, the CBS logo or a ’50s TV screen — they are generally more ambiguous, with the simple punch of the amoeboid, atomic, starburst forms of Eisenhower-era graphics.

Waters’ simple O’s lay bare the device, in a sense lifting a glamour girl’s taffeta skirts to reveal the pantyhose beneath. The work immediately carries associations to advertising, but advertising of a specific age. For the most part, Waters’ color palette references the postwar consumer glory days when the ker-ching of cash registers sang on the air. The baby blues, Mary Kay pinks and seafoam greens speak a chromatic language of the past just as their glittery sheen recalls the inlaid sparkle of Formica countertops or the spangles on a bombshell’s cocktail gown. With Waters’ careful combination of effects, the artist immediately recalls a certain place and time when American optimism peaked.

The majority of Waters’ O’s are placed on the gallery walls, but the occasional freestanding O is also on display. Unfortunately, that movement away from the signage reference tends to diffuse Waters’ advertising associations and dilutes the graphic punch of the show.

Though his glamour-vowels certainly evoke the minimalist work of Peter Halley, Dan Flavin or Ellsworth Kelly, the works’ better analogy is to the Pop art of the ’60s, to Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol, Elizabeth Murray and other like-minded artists indebted to advertising’s showy, aggressive, stupidly optimistic vocabulary of persuasion. Mixed up with that art world vocabulary is an obvious infatuation with our more ordinary cultural history. Design factors heavily in Waters’ work, which extends a hand from the high art gallery context to the middlebrow come-ons of commerce.

Jim Waters’ New Work runs through Dec. 1 at Kiang Gallery, 1923 Peachtree Road. 404-351-5477. Tues.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat. noon-5 p.m.??