A great deal of art leverages mystique by processing experience through varying layers of abstraction. The N-Word, a new collection of paintings by the artist Peter Williams — published by Rotland Press and with contributions by writers Lynn Crawford and Bill Harris — does the opposite: it lays out a response to systemic violence against people of color by the police in graphic and direct terms. “The N-Word” is the eponymous subject-protagonist of many of these images, a superhero who intervenes in situations featuring cops styled as pigs, vampires, and menacing pseudo-jesters. Despite sharing aesthetic foundations with Cubism far more than realism, Williams’s work here displays a prevailing sense of truth grounded in lived experience — a kind of subjective or emotional realism.
It’s a bit of a sticky moment for emotional realism. The politics of this election cycle — and, increasingly, global politics in general — seem geared toward amassing social capital and influence through the exploitation of lies that “feel” true. But it’s striking that the highly subjective interpretations of relations between police and citizens of color, as laid out in Williams’s bold and colorful tableaus, feel representative of a facet of reality that is increasingly validated by social and mainstream media, after centuries of going largely unrecognized. Images that would have been extremely confrontational even 20 years ago now stand on the precipice of normalization.
For this 2014–15 painting series, Williams borrowed from the lexicon of comics, a landscape shifting slowly but determinedly in the direction of more superheroes and creators of color: the run of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther has led to Marvel’s hire of Roxane Gay; Iron Man is becoming a black woman; and Jason Momoa has stepped into the cinematic role of Aquaman (thank you, Jesus). In the all-too-real world, a critical examination of the biased politics of policing in our society has gained visibility with astonishing momentum, even in the two years since Williams began creating this body of work. Given this context, the paintings in The N-Word are so of the moment that they seem to begin verging on inevitability; it bears remembering that Williams initiated these works prior to the groundswell of black superheroes and within a climate that was not necessarily receptive to his vision.
Indeed, acceptance has not been a hallmark of Williams’s development as a painter. “Detroit drove me out for my sins of wanting more of a critique through my work,” he says in a conversation with Harris included in the monograph. “Maybe that’s one of the important things that happened in Detroit: I got introduced to a community that I didn’t fit into.”
Publisher Ryan Standfest, too, recalls the mixed reception surrounding Williams’s paintings — which instantly stood out to him as powerful, capable of drawing subjects into the emotional reality of their creator as though by force (a bit like a superhero):
To my mind, when he [Williams] left Detroit, there was a noticeable absence of the kind of work he was pursuing. [His] work left an indelible mark on me for its caustic and yet also highly personal content. It rattled me and pulled me out of my environment into a place of deeper reflection; it made its way into me with its sense of urgency and agency, as it confronted race and identity and history. I tend to gravitate toward work that is not content with the state of things, and what Peter was doing in Detroit, and continues to do, speaks to my nervous system.
Standfest has succeeded in correctly identifying a moment to showcase work that speaks for itself, without feeling the need to force a collaboration. And for Williams, perhaps it is gratifying to see work that was created in a spirit of challenge find a moment in the sun. Swooping in to literally intercede in the indignities and injustices of daily life is, of course, beyond the capacity of images on paper, but The N-Word does add one more powerful figure to the fight for representation of lived experience.
The N-Word: Paintings by Peter Williams is published by Rotland Press.
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