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Peter Williams — who is sixty and black — is having his first solo exhibition of paintings in New York. And not one to ever play it safe, he is exhibiting two distinct bodies of work at Foxy Production (February 15, 2013–March 23, 2013) — three smallish abstract paintings and five large figurative ones — which share a palette of pinks, violets, blues, turquoises, reds, greens and yellows.
The colors are reminiscent of both India and the child’s board game Candyland, but the world Williams depicts, and this includes the abstract paintings, is a vulnerable one where everything has either gone haywire or is about to.
In the figurative paintings, where imaginary creatures populate a flat, abstract realm, viewers are apt to feel that they are privy to the artist’s dreams — or are they nightmares? — fantasies, memories, desires and free associations. Fear and jauntiness coexist in Williams’ tumultuous world, which is unlike anyone else’s.
In “Untitled” (2013), a sapling — or tree spirit — shrieks in terror at the sight of a leg wearing red-and-white checked pants and a snazzy loafer stippled with yellow and blue dots and outlined in red. The stippling resembles cake frosting and interrupts the painting’s flat surface, adding a visceral component to the viewer’s visual experience. Various creatures with long, hose-like noses float about. It is hard not to think of their noses as penises, and I would be surprised if that wasn’t the artist’s intention.
In another untitled painting (also 2013), which has a deep red ground, a pink naked figure with an oversized yellow head carries two guns. He is both brave and scared, determined and looking over his shoulder — his head is literally on backwards. Does the yellow skin imply cowardice? And if so, does the red ground suggest blood, possible violence? Williams provokes us to ask unsettling questions.
The figure stares directly up at a large pink head with turquoise nostrils peering down from the painting’s top edge. One of the naked figure’s legs resembles a wooden board. The large eyes and thick lips of both creatures allude to racist caricatures of blacks, underscoring the link between cartoons and this country’s deeply imbedded racism — a subject that Joyce Pensato also explores. As with Pensato’s depictions of Homer Simpson and Donald Duck, there is no simple way to interpret Williams’ paintings because they resist any literal reading or one-to-one correspondence. Perhaps this is one reason why he hasn’t shown in New York since two of his paintings were included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
Although Williams’ paintings are full of fantastical creatures done in adamantly cheerful colors, they come across as deeply autobiographical. When he was a young man, he had to have his leg amputated after the driver of a car in which he was a passenger deliberately plunged it off a cliff. While it is likely that the artist is still haunted by this event — how could he not be? — and is certainly aware of its devastating effects, he makes no direct allusion to it. In fact, if the viewer didn’t know that Williams has one leg, he or she might think the pink figure and checkered pant leg are elements in the artist’s fantastical world. To his credit, the artist makes no attempt to elicit sympathy or claim to be a victim.
A tree spirit dresses a boy in red-and-white checked overalls in the center of the painting. The boy is in a somnambulant state, either standing on his toes or floating slightly above the ground. The two characters are in an ocher field, with abstract green foliage (hatch marks) in the distance. All around them are variously shaped, fanciful beings, staring at this strange ritual. A figure floats in the air, above and to the right of the boy and tree spirit.
Below the floating figure, in the lower right-hand corner, is an elephant-like head whose curling trunk is emblazoned with the word “gasoline.” The nozzle-like trunk is phallic, signifying that the act of pumping gas might be read another way. Williams seems to be refuting the old adage and suggesting that sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.
Is the scene a memory of the artist’s childhood? A dream? Have we become voyeurs of his inner life? How do we understand the passing of time when we pass sixty and our damaged body has become increasingly vulnerable?
Amidst the heads, their threatening presences, the artist inculcates tenderness into the interaction between the tree spirit and the child. Compassion is rare in contemporary art, and Williams gets it just right, which is to say there isn’t a trace of sentimentality in his work.
The three abstract paintings in the show each contain a symmetrical form made of distinct shapes, which are often delineated by a border. The symmetrical form is somewhere between an abstract flower and a mandala without becoming either, with an aperture at the center. I was reminded of how many orifices the human body possesses and how few of them can actually be seen by their owner.
In these paintings Williams has channeled Forrest Bess — something a number of artists have tried to do without much success — and come up with something that is his own. In addition to Bess, he has entered a territory occupied by James Ensor and Richard Dadd, which is being explored today by artists as varied as Judith Linhares, Amy Sillman and Nicole Eisenman. His work does not suffer by comparison.
Susceptibility is one of the artist’s recurring preoccupations — the body damaged, growing older and under siege. Despite these unavoidable encroachments, Williams is able to infuse his paintings with a sense of humor that is simultaneously tender and terrifying. At times, a sense of self-disgust floods the work, counteracted by the color and the humor. The combination is distressing and commanding. Your nerves are apt to be jangled.
Peter Williams continues at Foxy Production (623 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 23.