There are two paintings on opposite walls by the front door. They are the first things to greet you, but they don’t step off the wall, as the saying goes, and shake your hand.
The painting on the left wall is of a giant, blue-eyed, stippled head and oversized neck resting on a semi-circular white platform (or is it a pair of shoulders?), delineated by a black line drawn on the painting’s white ground. Covered with unsightly magenta, yellow, and pale blue dots, the misshapen head looks skyward with its mouth wide open, a fence of perfect teeth pressed against its stretched lips. An upside-down, naked black woman, with her back facing the viewer and her legs askew, is sliding head first into the wide-open mouth. She is encircled by rope, her hands restrained at her sides. As you turn your attention from this unexplained event to the details of the monstrous head, you notice that tiny African-Americans, mostly dressed in blue, are being extruded from the pores spreading across the dappled skin.
The painting on the opposite wall depicts a monstrous pig standing inside a circus ring, where an African-American animal trainer snaps a whip. The blue-eyed pig’s maw is open, revealing two huge fangs; he is wearing a blue policeman’s cap with a yellow badge bearing the word “PIG” on it. The African-American trainer stands in front of the pig, his body toward the animal, while his head rests sideways on his shoulders, facing out at us. He is wearing a striped jacket with epaulets. Along with the whip in his right hand, he holds a black hoop in his left, presumably for the oversized pig to jump through.
Each painting portrays a violent encounter in which no peaceful resolution is possible: it is Peter Williams’s vision of America. The question is not whether we will slide into chaos, but when will we move deeper into it, and how far.
Since seeing the exhibition, Peter Williams: With So Little To Be Sure Of at CUE (February 23 – March 29, 2018), curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, I have started to think of the two paintings by the front door as sentinels at the gateway to hell. Fittingly enough, one of the sentinels pairs a ferocious pig cop and a black animal tamer, while the other pairs a head consuming a body — Williams’s updated version of Francisco Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1819-23), which is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Peter Williams states: “We must do more than bear witness, we must respond.”
Rather than “witnessing” the death of someone in the news, Williams made the painting “Sandra Bland” (2016) — the misshapen head devouring the woman — as his response to the death of Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, on July 13, 2015, three days after she had been arrested for a traffic violation. The best articles that I have read about Sandra Bland are by Debbie Nathan, which appeared in The Nation (December 18, 2015, and April 21, 2016). Here is one reason why Bland got stopped:
Texas has no state income tax, and money for social services must come from somewhere. Gouging people with traffic tickets and criminal convictions is an easy way for the state, counties, and municipalities to collect lots of money. (December 18, 2015).
Williams’ painting is his analogical response to a distorted system that legally bleeds one segment of the populace so that the rest don’t have to pay state income taxes; this privileged populace wants security and infrastructure without paying for it. Williams is not the only one who knows that the burden of this responsibility largely falls on the black community; and that this stacked system has been in operation longer than anyone of us has been alive.
By depicting a grotesque, speckled, blue-eyed head devouring a black woman whose back is turned toward us, and whose face we never see, Williams utilizes the grotesque to address the fundamental imbalances defining America. Along with Goya, Williams shares something with James Ensor, his use of bright colors and masks. Williams’s narrative invention and interest in the grotesque, caricature, and masks differentiate him from other black artists who depict the figure.
I would further add that Williams’s awareness of the irreparable harm done to black bodies is deeply personal. When he was a young man living in New Mexico, he was a passenger in a car driven by a suicidal companion who drove off a cliff. The person driving did not suffer major injuries, while Williams had to have a leg amputated. Being at the mercy of someone else’s self-loathing is an experienced that has permanently marked Williams’s life.
Like Nina Chanel Abney, whose paintings share something with the older artist’s work, Williams channels an awareness that abuse and mayhem are integral to the state’s treatment of people of color.
His depiction of the police pig in a circus ring is titled “Resistance II” (2017).
Once you pass these two paintings, and walk down the corridor leading to the main gallery, you have entered Williams’s vision of hell, which is everyday America. He does not see the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, and many others as isolated incidents, but as part of the systemic, sanctioned hatred governing America’s policies.
In “Specimen” (2017), Williams depicts a black man on his knees, with his khaki trousers pulled down and his hands tied behind his back. He is in a powerless, subjugated position, and we have no idea who he is or who has done this to him. What we see is unexplained humiliation. As with the animal trainer in “Resistance II,” the body is turned into the painting, while the head (actually there are two) is directed toward the viewer. One of the heads partially covers the other, as if it were a mask. A tongue is sticking out of the mouth of the mask-like face, its eyes closed. Is it a death mask waiting to be slipped over the man’s head?
Williams envisions America as a hell-cum-circus populated by cartoony figures: the police are pigs with curlicue tails who wear police caps with PIG or PIGGIE spelled out on the badges and carry huge billy clubs marked ADMINISTRATOR. Black men are tied up, strangled, shot, and beaten. In the painting “Mine” (2017), we read the phrase “Low Tech Lynching” above the pairing of “Negro” and “Nigga.” The painting, which is dominated by a star whose five points span nearly the entire surface, is, like many of Williams’s other works, rendered in jaunty colors in a style inspired by pointillism and mosaics. The gap between the quickness with which we read the words and the time it took for the artist to make all the dots in the painting is another unsettling current animating these paintings.
On the far wall of the gallery — our destination — Williams has installed “Mass Murder” (2017), which consists of a grid of five rows of small paintings, which flanking a ladder-like structure placed in the middle of the wall, leaning against it. Three slightly larger paintings have been attached to the structure. The top one depicts an angry head intruding from the right, facing a small policeman. Above this scene is the word “CAPTIVATE.”
In the middle painting, the word “MOTIVATE” is emblazoned above a scene that replicates the one above it with a noticeable difference. We see the white policeman beating a black man, while the same head (or witness) looks on, mouth open in anger and shock. The bottom painting is a frontal view of a black man’s face with a pair of concentric bug eyes jutting forward from the painting’s surface. The words “WHITE SUPREMACY” flank the man’s head, while “MASS” is written along the top edge and “INCARCERATION” along the bottom.
Many of the paintings in the grid are cropped views of a black head or face peering out from behind bars. Interspersed among these paintings are ones in which Williams has attached sculptural forms echoing the black man’s bug eyes. Meanwhile, above the grid, Williams has placed smaller portrait heads in different shades of black, brown, umber, yellow, and reddish brown, inviting us to connect them to the incarcerated ones below.
Williams uses caricature to invite viewers — whatever their political persuasion— to reflect upon how they see people of a race different from their own, as well as underscore the intolerance, distrust, and fear running throughout our everyday lives. A brave and intrepid curator ought to buy “Mass Murder” and install it near the entrance of a museum.
Walking home, I remembered something a black artist friend told me about raising his son in New York City: “I told him never to run down the street.” This is the reality we inhabit. There is nothing “united” about the United States, something artists as different as Jasper Johns and Peter Williams have known their whole lives.
Peter Williams: With So Little To Be Sure Of continues at CUE Art Foundation (137 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 29.