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LOS ANGELES — Peter Williams has long engaged issues of American racism and the Black experience, and his new exhibition Black Universe at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles is no different: his paintings include flying cars, abstracted landscapes, snatches of text (“Trump,” “Wall Street,” “Lawyers,” “Floater,” and “Help” all appear), and Black astronauts whose need to wear helmets in space makes me think of the phrase “I can’t breathe.” Williams’s astronauts extend the Afrofuturist theme of escaping the minefields of racism — as he explained in an interview, the Black Universe series “started out with my decision to leave the planet and the way to do that would be to take my 12-year-old car down to Cuba and have them retrofit it and put on some rockets and stuff.”
The artist’s hand is raw and urgent, with areas of primed canvas left bare, graphite lines visible. Though these pictures are less confrontational than his past depictions of police brutality, for example, Williams still makes no effort to ingratiate himself through either technical finesse or pulled punches, which may be why his work has yet to find a home in many major museums despite his latest recognition, the 2020 Artists’ Legacy Foundation Award.
There is a cornucopia of things to look at and ponder in Williams’s new paintings, but I found myself preoccupied by the birds in two of his canvases, “Birdland” (2020) and “As the Birds Fly, Another Planet” (2019). Williams, an ardent birdwatcher, has put birds in earlier paintings. Beyond the obvious reference to Charlie “Bird” Parker, the birds in these new works remind me of Christian Cooper, a birder who came to unwanted fame this year after recording a white woman fraudulently calling the police on him in Central Park. “The birds don’t care what color you are,” Cooper told a reporter, and it occurs to me that these animals belong in Williams’s Afrofuturist world. The feathers of his birds abound in color and pattern, as do the astronauts flying like their avian cousins through half the paintings in this show. Only racism pigeonholes people with a single hue; we are all endlessly polychromatic in our skins, cultures, and personalities. Speaking about his approach to color during a 2020 conversation with critic John Yau, he commented, “It’s a formal kind of saying, ‘Here, this is part of my Negritude, part of the Negrosity that I have in my soul.’”
Williams’s paintings proffer wellsprings of individuality and broad humanity in their cyclones of color and interlocking form. It is past time that he receives the institutional attention he deserves.
Peter Williams: Black Universe continues at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles (2685 S La Cienega Blvd, Mid-City, Los Angeles) through October 10.