PARIS — Alun Williams is a barmy British bloke who roams the backstreets of cities and towns, stubbornly signifying historic citizens with slapdash splotches. His congenially coy paintings are now being shown in For the Selenites’ Pleasure, his third show at Galerie Anne Barrault in Paris.
Quite curiously, Williams makes ahistorical history paintings by playing with the postmodern circulation of context-free imagery, mixing free-spirited image accumulation with glints of personal specificity. As such, he takes the piss out of painting in an emblematic way, second only to Andy Warhol. Consider Williams’s coquettish but elaborate canvas “Detail of Hommage à la jeunesse de Victorine Meurent” (2017), my favorite in the show. This painting features the rendering of a pale abstract sculpture that looks like snow-covered road-kill or the morphology of a fart. A bit more yellowish, it would evoke frozen piss. This oddly flat abstract sculpture sits on a low-pedestal near an indecipherable portrait painting, behind two diminutive horse sculptures and a buttery statuette of a woman; all set in a chic park-side penthouse. This tortured stain-shape ignobly represents Victorine Meurent, the female French painter and famous model for Édouard Manet. She appears quite brazenly nude in Manet’s swank masterpiece “Olympia” (1863).
Using this baffling, audacious, associative method also for the plucky painting “Hester Leisler (statue 1)” (2017), Williams (again) utilizes unintended fluid-spill marks (this time painted a perky urine yellow) that he discovered investigating Hester Leisler’s personal historical setting (a history that remained opaque to my investigative probe). Again, as with the majority of the paintings shown, found stains, painted as flat sculpture, stand-in for the person who is the ostensible subject of the painting. These woozy stand-in forms have a surreal, dreamy, and vaguely nostalgic aspect that reminds me of the indecipherable lyrics from a fuzzy shoegaze band or a 1950s British abstract sculpture; like Reg Butler’s.
Yet Christian Viveros-Fauné establishes that Williams does extensive and precise research into the stains and also into the backgrounds that frame these wimpy, smeary forms. But just what historic precision they convey was not evident to my eye. Rather than offer illustration, the paintings increasingly blur the boundary between the imaginary and the evident. Even the material of paint (as applied to flat surfaces with spontaneity) is spoofed — that is, paint is punked. Nevertheless, Williams’s noticeably consistent subject is viscosity: the resistance of a fluid to deformity under stress. A liquid’s viscosity is then intertwined with a person’s time and place and death, thus also suggesting the fluidity of the human body.
Williams’s enjoyable paintings are cheeky, post-modern affairs that use appropriation in a unique and inventive way. His Duchampian objets trouvés are different, however, from a readymade. They are usually accidental paint-marks found on the street at a location (street name or pertinent address) connected to his subject’s real life. So he paints (albeit oddly) within the context of the history of history painting. The wilfully undramatic results make a strange new kind of non-pedantic portraiture painting based on historical content and the power of suggestive, artful, mental links. This insurrectional symbolism also makes use of revivalist, illustrative styles in what hosts and frames the enigmatic stain sculptures. These erratic, ahistorical, illustration styles also seem appropriated (or at least extraordinarily familiar).
Thus Williams’s double-strained stain enigmas do not push back very hard against the complicity many feel with the speed of easy cultural consumption today. Like Dada iconoclast Francis Picabia, Williams plucks motifs from any and all style periods. Indeed, he parties like it’s 1985. This serpentine style of time conflation is the droll setting for the piss-stain forms that have been extracted from particular localities and made to represent human beings, now thinned and diminished. Symbolically, they might be the preserved body rot of whomever they are intended to pity or epitomize.
A bit less scatological in tone is the hysterical and vexing smaller canvas “Statue of John Adams” (2017). It naughtily monumentalizes John Adams, the second President of the United States, as an anaemic, spindly, Gitane blue persona with pointy little arms. That blue form diffuses a sense of wayward glamor to me by suggesting an anorexic, somnambulistic cat. What I especially admire about the painting is that it’s disconcerting mixed signals are never neutralized by some explanatory psychodrama, but it does make a stealthy appeal to freedom, thereby sidestepping camp. (Adams played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence from England.) Other notable individuals receiving Williams’s stain-witticism treatment on a small-scale are Margherita Luti (the mistress and model of Raphael), Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. All of these paintings feature a prominent plasmatic stain form, and thus summon up the slimy, sleuthy spectre of Picabia’s radically splotched-into-being “La Sainte Vierge” (The Blessed Virgin, 1920). Like “La Sainte Vierge,” they too highlight sooty skids that departed people have left behind, offering new ways of thinking about history (or herstory). They transform homely casualness into its unanticipated opposite: something valiant.
Much of the fulsome effect of contemplating Williams’s adroit paintings has to do with their meaninglessness: their refusal to offer up a useful narrative of historical significance. Thus they remind us that there is a kind of grief connected to the death of a person that, while real and permanent, cannot point to much beyond itself. The shuffling off of the mortal coil is not an enduring thing to be grasped by the living, but more like an acid hole pointedly burnt into life’s fabric.