PPOW | JANUARY 27 – FEBURARY 26, 2011
Just for the record, these paintings are not by the comedian Robin Williams. But this young artist does share some of the verve and originality of her coincidental namesake, making for a visually entertaining exhibition. Williams’s portrayals of adolescent life and art historical allusions are all well and fine, but almost secondary to the sheer élan of her painting. She is outrageously skilled at representing objects that are notoriously difficult to paint and clearly relishes the challenge. This artist will be interesting to watch develop.
Although Williams does initially work from observation, she is not a figure painter in the traditional sense of capturing the figure in a specific location and moment. Nor is she primarily focused on what Tony Godfrey refers to as the experience of one’s physical condition, no matter the presence of the awkward adolescent body in her paintings. Rather, Williams creates psychological narratives by placing figures in constructed situations. A nubile youth reclines amidst rabbits in a cabbage patch. An adolescent stares down her twin (or alter ego?) in an intense showdown (with her inner self?). Or, in the case of “Rescue Party,”a group of “tweens” in varying stages of undress lounge about in an inflatable pool, bored, expectant, and yet uncertain of the future. The thoroughly contrived composition (overtly inspired by Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”)does enforce the uncertainty and nascent sexuality of adolescence, but makes the narrative a bit heavy-handed.
The work has a lighter touch when Williams gives full rein to the physical act of painting. Uncanny resemblance to Julie Heffernan’s technique aside, Williams paints beautifully, whether it is the translucent plastic of an inflatable pool or the nylon netting and sheer organza of a dressy hat. “Tired Prince”displays the full range of her skills. A young man poses wrapped in a reflective foil blanket and wears a bizarre, flowing headdress of pom-poms and flowers. In that miraculous trick, peculiar to painting, the blanket is realistic from afar but at close range dissolves into an energetic composition of triangles in surprising shades of blues, greens, grays, and purples. Some of the flower centers are made of paint squeezed out of a frosting tip. The viewer enjoys the spontaneity of the work and is left to consider the subject without feeling oppressed by the narrative.
Daring color choices underscore themes in original ways. The cold yellow light of “Rescue Party” infuses the scene with an air of cool objectivity and creates a distance from the viewer. Ablatantly false, hot yellow lightdoes the opposite in “Boy with Sticks,” snapping the viewer to attention with its demanding palette. The figure glows deep fuchsia and red; log ends burn red and orange from within; the dark bark of those metaphorical logs is cast with surprising magenta highlights. The absurdity of the subject’s situation, indeed the absurdity of adolescence in general, provokes laughter without unwarranted pathos.
All this skilled and witty color play does, however, raise one question. If human experience is so central to the meaning of Williams’s work, why are the human figures painted so dispassionately? The artist willingly takes fantastic risks with a flower or log but renders the human figures so much more cautiously in muted tones. The portraits are beautifully drafted but lack vitality or individuality. Instead of connecting to the human subject, the viewer focuses more on the raft, the trench coat, or the headdress. This detracts from the artist’s exploration of a very human subject: the transition to adulthood. Perhaps greater consideration of those old and unfashionable traditions of “figure” and “body” painting would help bring the models to life as individuals. Only then will her work reach its narrative potential. In the meantime, we are left to enjoy the mischief of her painting.
CORINA LARKIN is a painter and writer who lives in New York City. She is also an editor of the Rail's ArtSeen section.