Two weeks ago, Sarah and I set out to see “SUN + Light” by Charles Williams at Residency Art Gallery. A commercial gallery located on E. Queen Street in Inglewood, it was on the periphery of our collective radar, but not a space we had ever seen in person. The show was brought to my attention by the artist himself, who contacted us through our “want to get unpublished?” web form, requesting a review. Needless to say, the only other requests ever made for unpublished reviews were blatantly unethical (I won’t go into it), and could not be accommodated. This, however, was rather straightforward; after all, didn’t we have a web form where you could request to get unpublished? I think it’s a kind of poetic justice for my lack of web skills, and my over-delight in the non-specificity (aka possibility) of language.
But this is a quickie, and I’m not being quick. Let’s get to the point. “SUN + Light” is a show for people who like beautiful things, and find meaning in that beauty—for the most part. As Alessia Cara sang, much, much too profoundly for her genre: “Beauty is pain, and there’s beauty in everything.” What am I trying to say? As art, it’s amongst the prettiest works I’ve seen, ever. Charles is the kind of artist where you look at their work and say, yeah, this guy knows what he’s doing. A “master” of the figurative, and faces especially, his paintings capture expression in an almost implausible way. Take, for example, Yellow (Freedom Riders), a series of 17 oil on mylar paintings; the faces here occupy a strange figurative space between rendering and smudge; they look simultaneously effortless and incredibly specific, but also as if they could be wiped away in an instant.
I always find figurative works like this challenging; maybe even frustrating—we know from the title of the series that the paintings depict “freedom riders,” but not their names, or the freedoms they rode for. I would guess, though I have no way of knowing, that these portraits are meant to honor, or play a kind of homage, to those figured; that I am unable to identify them speaks to their obscurity within my field of recognition, and likely points to my lack of knowledge of important political figures (they appear to be all female, and a mix of races, as far as I can tell). Either that, or they represent the freedom fighters in Charles’ own life, and I am lost searching for a point of recognition in something that is fundamentally unrecognizable, aka, “personal.” The yellow mylar, the “SUN” part of “SUN + Light,” is operating as a color with positive connotations, or connotations of positivity, and is therefor acting as a “sunny” stage on which the portraits are presented—a golden hue to what could otherwise be interpreted as a police line-up. Wait a second. Is that what they are? And do I consider that possibility because they’re mostly unsmiling? Or because they’re called Freedom Riders? Or because they’re in a row? Or because they’re all potentially non-white? It’s interesting to see the way Charles reduces his portraits to simply yellow and black; the color of the sun, and conversely, the sunless sky. If I like this series of paintings, it’s because of that intermediate space I mentioned; between being a smudge, and being a painting; between being an abstraction, and having personhood. If I don’t like this series of paintings, it’s because I wish I knew who I was looking at, which would help me understand how to interpret that looking. Alternatively, the inability to recognize the faces serves as a kind of content, challenging me to acknowledge my lack of Freedom Rider historical knowledge. The problem with forming a cohesive interpretation of Yellow (Freedom Riders) is that so much of that interpretation hinges on the knowledge of the onlooker; and knowledge, as we know, can be dependent on one’s position. But the more I think about it, the more I like this turn; I know that Charles wants his work to inspire positivity, and in this regard, I am not only inspired to learn the names of those in the portraits, but to imagine the way in which I would construct such an artwork—my own line-up of Freedom Riders—art as an aspiration, reflecting not ourselves, but the heroes of our better nature.
Power + Love shares some of these qualities in terms of recognition, but none of the smudgyness. The composition of the figures, which is Statue of Liberty-esque, gets very much like a painting—what I mean by this I don’t quite know how to explain. There is a straightforward quality to Charles’s work—the directness of the media and the image; it’s rendered in the style of a trained hand, and more or less thoughtfully blended with that more abstract, painty-scratchy-watercolory thing that paint does when it’s not being refined into a figure, or other identifiable object. Power + Love lands firmly in the plane of Fine Art, as opposed to that ill-liked plane of “illustration,” which Charles certainly does well within all his work; but his nuanced application of color, and his slightly left-justified composition infers an artist who is interested in paint and painting, and combining it with his interests and making it both narrative and personal; in this case, as the press release says: “juxtaposing Williams’ own encounters, past and present, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” I don’t know about you, but this description alone sounds ghosty, and I think that hangs in the air at “SUN + Light.” Honestly, when I look at this painting, I see something that looks a lot like a Francis Bacon (Study after Veláquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X??!!), which would be a fascinating reference, albeit much freakier than I sense Charles wants to get.
The singular video in the show, UNTITLED (son), is really, really good. As a time-based media, I think it has the kind of immediate impact that Charles is looking for in his graphic work; but the thing about videos is that they speak, literally; and speak can be awfully inspiring. Untitled (son) is technically simple, but not simplistic; at under five minutes, the video follows a young boy as he travels through what appears to be a natural landscape (the video is hued yellow, of course—the overarching and heavy-handed color metaphor that won’t leave us alone); through the headphones comes the booming, impassioned voice of Killer Mike, questioning the notion that his community is really “ready for war.” “How many boys are currently enrolled in a martial arts class?” he asks; “how many people grow their own food? How many people practice shooting, and how many times a week?” What’s powerful about Killer Mike’s address is that he’s reminding his community that there is a realm of the real, and a realm of the imagined; while he appreciates that rhetoric is inspiring, representation is not enough—in fact, it’s naive. While his address is a call to action, it’s also a call to transcend ideas with actions; while this may be ubiquitous when talking politics, Killer Mike is really making a fundamental request: let us transcend abstraction, and do something real, that’s within our power, to nourish and protect ourselves; to survive. I would argue that in the context of this show, Killer Mike is arguing for an action that transcends art—and the irony that his address has become art is the crux of the work; it’s the tension between the importance of representation versus action; what we want to be, versus who we are; how we see ourselves, versus how others see us. See this video.
The last artwork I want to mention is Scramble, an alarming triptych in which Charles photorealistically renders the unfathomable encounter between a teenage girl at a pool party and the police officer who tackled her (while she was in her bathing suit) and drew his weapon against those who sought to come to her aid. This particular example of police brutality, although not unique in function, was certainly a formal nightmare; twelve police officers responded to the scene, which was literally a pool party at a private pool; the black teenage girl tackled by the police officer was wearing a bathing suit as she was forced to the ground; and those that would try to help her were in swimwear, too. That a trained police officer could so misunderstand the human beings in front of him, wearing bathing suits, as potentially armed and dangerous, presents a grotesque abstraction of human life; instead of a party, he saw a mob; instead of bare, vulnerable skin, he saw indestructibility; instead of seeing a body, he saw a color. For anybody that sees contemporary art on a regular basis (and I don’t mean Contemporary Art, I mean art-being-made-right-now), there are too many artworks to count that draw political images directly from their sources; and a passive onlooker could mistake Scramble for one of these well-meaning, political artworks that serves as a platform for activism; but that is not what Scramble is. Because Charles is an artist deeply invested in the tension between representation and abstraction—between a line used to render, and a brush used to stroke—he understood this image to be just that—the sublime image of racism, and, I would argue, the inverse of love. So, why am I so floored by the brilliance of this particular artwork? You see, Charles has taken this image, rendered it in this most photo-realistic, un-Modern way imaginable, and placed it on a plane of concentric squares, brushed almost randomly, but certainly abstractly, with that yellow metaphorical paint. Scramble is the place where worlds collide; where the racist and generally completely problematic and fucked up history of Modernism bears its destructive legacy. Art is an ideology, people, and it can be evil.
Now, I know what Charles wrote about his work—about God, and divine love, and his grandmother telling him: “Stay in the light. Stay positive.” Stay positive is a powerful message, and an important one. But I think there are moments where Charles has gone so far beyond the realm of positivity—far beyond it, and into the realm of complexity. When an artist tells you that they want you to be inspired—let’s just say I brace myself. Not because artwork can’t inspire—on the contrary. An artist that wants to inspire others through their work really cares about others; I value that. It’s a weirdly pure gesture for art, which is a thing I see as usually being so much more corrupt than that. Charles, I don’t know if I’ve been inspired in the right way by your artwork, but I am invested in your expression; what I see as your conflation of Modernism with the very contemporary fallout of its racist and sexist ideology speaks deeply to me. Thank you for drawing me to your work—I hope you find the sunshine that you’re looking for.
“SUN + Light” is on view at Residency Art Gallery in Inglewood, CA, from January 20 to March 10, 2018. There will be a closing reception on Sunday, March 11th from 4:00pm to 6:00pm. For more information on Charles Williams, please visit his website: http://www.cewpaintings.com
The featured image at the top of this post is American Dream, 2017 Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 30 x 38in, courtesy of Residency Art Gallery
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!