Encountering "William Counter: Simple Spells"

at Firecat Projects


“Simple Spells” is an enchanting and quirky exhibition and anything but simple! The one-man show of Kansas artist William Counter at Firecat Projects gallery transports visitors back to the days of wooden yardsticks and cut-out coupons. Showcasing a wide range of work, from drawings to paintings to intricate wooden constructions, the exhibition illustrates how even the most common and inane commercial objects can be turned into unique works of art.

Firecat Projects may only be a small, one-room exhibition space with off-white walls and a creaky wooden floor, but its cozy ambiance pairs perfectly with Counter’s down-to-earth aesthetic. The Midwestern artist employs everyday materials, such as rulers, stamps and magazine advertisements, and explores their artistic potential. The gallery walls are filled with examples of Counter’s experiments in sculpture, drawing and painting, providing a sweeping look at his body of work. Uniting these artworks is a fascination with shape and materials, which Counter examines through a variety of media. Drawings and preliminary sketches complement larger works on canvas, while complex collages harmonize with intricate wooden constructions.

The gallery space itself reflects the exhibit’s exploratory feeling. Works on paper are displayed somewhat haphazardly, held in place by small binder clips dangling off nails with slightly curling edges. Paintings are loosely fixed to the wall, placed at various heights and angles, and sometimes askew. But overall, the casual attitude and nonchalance of the exhibition is charming and inviting. The works beckon to be approached and examined.

This dichotomy between close inspection and visualization at a distance is an important feature of Counter’s work which Firecat’s layout suits particularly well. From far away, these works are bright and cheery displays, filled with stars and shapes and popping colors. Stepping back, one can view the whole exhibition and trace the various themes and connections between works.

However, Counter’s creations are not always what they seem. Up close, these objects contain remarkable details that tell a very different story. Some of the most interesting works are Counter’s wood constructions. From afar, these works are striking geometric designs that capture the imagination. Only upon close inspection are these bold pieces’ true complexity revealed!

These seemingly one-dimensional works are actually made from yard-sticks, carefully pieced to-gether to create a seamless and intricately designed surface. Certainly one of the most complex is Sunflower, the largest of Counter’s wooden creations. Featuring dynamic stars brought out by bright yellow accents, it is made up of hundreds of carefully cut yardsticks held together with beeswax to create a smooth, tile-like surface.

Counter’s wooden works are not the only ones that deceive the eye. His paintings likewise contain hidden elements that take on new significance when carefully scrutinized. In Meta #7, for instance, Counter layers the canvas with pages from magazine advertisements to create a complex collage of consumer content. However, he paints over these ads with thin white paint, partially obscuring the original forms so that these details can only be distinguished up close. Through a literal ‘white-washing’ of these coupons, Counter neutralizes their commercial message.

Counter shrewdly obscures many of the words, numbers and symbols that once decorated his materials through his collaging and puzzle-making. However, little hints remain as to these objects’ previous lives and their original functions.

In Meta #7, he leaves behind numbers and colors that act as a clue to the canvas’s underlying surface. In his wooden works, his material reuse is even more obvious. His construction Woodman #4, for example, bears numerous references to Midwestern companies, like “Hastings Steels,” and cities, such as “Lincoln, Nebraska,” where these yardsticks would have been made and used. “Performance Use” and “Safety” appeal to another time and place, when these objects were common tools in the workplace. Counter’s re-use of these materials provides a glimpse into the intersection between object and art and how technology has changed their nature.

“Simple Spells” is all about hidden complexities that lie just under the surface of such simple, small objects. Returning to old-school objects like yardsticks, magazine coupons, and stamps, Counter endows these items with newly-found aesthetics and value, leaving a gentle reminder of their original purpose and significance. The show provides a new take on the classic discourse surrounding commercialism and material reuse. While far from simple, the show will cast a spell over every visitor.


Emelia Lehmann


“Simple Spells” was on view from May 31 to June 21 at Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60647


Emelia Lehmann is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and an aspiring arts professional. An avid writer and researcher, she loves exploring the incredible arts and cultural opportunities in Chicago.

William Counter, Sunflower. Image courtesy of William Counter and Firecat Projects.

William Counter, Woodman #4. Image courtesy of William Counter and Firecat Projects.

William Counter, Meta #7. Image courtesy of William Counter and Firecat Projects.



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