Sue Williams - 303 Gallery
I feel slightly bad about trashing a 303 artist again, and so soon, but this show deserved it even more than the gallery’s previous one. I wrote about Karen Kilimnik in the last issue, whose work I had once admired, but who seemed to have veered off course with a kind of aesthetic haughtiness. Coming right on the heels of Kilimnik Sue Williams’ sixth show at the gallery became the second half of a pretentious double-header. It coincided with a glut of strong painting exhibitions around Chelsea (Brice Marden’s linear abstractions across the street, for example, provide a brutal foil), but remarkably escaped any serious critical appraisal.
The journalistic rah-rah began quite a few months before the show opened. Around New Year’s, Michael Kimmelman of the Times treated readers to an astonishing front-page hagiography of Williams in her Sunset Park studio. Throughout, he was impressed with the development of her short career, the way her line has gradually matured from her early sexually-infused and violent drawing into a more lyrical, intuitive abstraction. Many critics enjoyed invoking late DeKooning in their descriptions of the show, and his influence is undeniably present. But those gorgeous paintings—a number of which were show at Marks earlier in the year—have a perplexingly rich chromatic and formal sense; taken in the context of his earlier work, the compositions feel at turns uncomfortable and liberating, an aching denouement to one of the longer and more powerful careers in American painting. Williams, by contrast, has inexplicably emptied her line of the domestic-abuse-inspired violence and urgency that once made her paintings moderately interesting. Kimmelman seems to think that this resulted from the more amicable personal relationship in which she know finds herself, her art having calmed down with her. Seems plausible, and heartwarming, but it doesn’t make for good paintings, whatever he’d like us to believe. I hate to think that an artist isn’t capable of producing decent canvases now that she’s happier (the press release notes her “cheerful colors”), but that unpleasant possibility itself here.
The backroom has a selection of ink drawings on acetate that reminds us what Williams does well. The gallery pretends that these works provide some bridge between gesture and terse lyricism, evidence of the artist’s recent interests in “the possibility of merging figurative representation and abstraction.” But in the few places where her illustration-informed flourish turns to broader gestural strokes, you can feel her trying to get away from a representational line altogether. And when you trudge back through the canvases on your way out (did I mention that they’re Day-Glo?), it’s hard not to wonder if this is, sadly, the kind of painting Williams has been wanting make all along.
This, then, troublingly suggests that she manipulated the Post-Feminist critiques and dialogues in which her work was initially received over ten years ago. At the very least, it offers yet another page in the playbook for emerging artists who are struggling to be noticed: use sex, or other confrontational subject matter, to make some pseudo-provocative work (“bad girl art,” as Deborah Solomon likes to put it). Once the furor has died down, hopefully you’ll be comfortably installed at a hip gallery, have enjoyed a Biennial, and you can begin convincing everyone that your schtick was a reflection of some terrible personal period that you’ve since moved past. Note to self, and to gallery: describe your new process as “intuitive,” which means that people can’t ask you what you are really up to. With a little luck and some critical cooperation, you’ll be free to get down and dirty in the studio making “skirting gestures, ideas really, waiting to be absorbed.”