SUE WILLIAMSby Grant Klarich Johnson
REGEN PROJECTS | APRIL 14 – MAY 12, 2018
Sue Williams has made a career of naughty, explicit paintings, from appropriating sexist and erotic cartoons for agitprop feminism, to stylizing an all-over geography of butts, balls, boobs, and assorted sphincters that excavate the erotic repressions of abstraction and expressionism. So it’s a surprise and a challenge to confront new works like Pleasantville (2018) that take a comparatively oblique, demure turn. Maybe now, when indecorous vulgarity pours forth from the Oval Office like a new national language, Williams’s long-standing impulse to paint against the grain, to picture something counter to the status quo has led her to something much less explicit, dare I say G-rated. After years of very tight painting, these canvases, with their crude marks, puzzling stains, and fecal smears, represent a release, at the level of handling but also, as we lose sight of the tight geography of orifices, guts, and assorted flesh, of iconography too.
The works in this show are still confrontational and risky, but in a different, more existentialist, and painterly way. Works as bald as Ranch House W Extension Designs (2018) feel almost naked, leaving large swathes of the unprimed beige canvas nude and untouched by paint. We see the step-by-step path of improvisational drawing, a green rectangle laid down, and then partially rubbed out, a humble pink rectangle charted, and then hatched over with a red thicket. Such demonstrations eschew pre-meditation and planning as well as any fussy finishing, questioning how few marks a painting can get away with while still remaining a painting.
Here and there, brushwork turns into loosely diagrammatic or casually doodled forms, often benign, unassuming architectural fragments, and boxy sketches which imagine a partial façade, stairwells, or windows. One such icon, a goldenrod “M” in The Golden Arches (2018), delivers the show’s most worldly and direct reference. Everything else is much more esoteric. Exploring medium instead of (or as) message, this collection fetishizes blocks of raw color instead of fastidious form-making, as suggested by the title of works like Sunny (2017) where swathes of orange and yellow feature prominently, or The Future with Blue Smear (2018), a chamber orchestra of coral, sea green, cerulean, and the eponymous navy smears.
Beside the paintings, a handful of small collages that introduce the exhibition risk stealing the show. In Moderne (2018) and Powder Room (2018), we see Williams’s semi-recognizable doodles laid down on translucent vellum juxtaposed with swatches of wallpaper and upholstery fabric. Unpredictable combinations, they suggest an unruly eroticism to be extracted from even the most repressed Victorian domestic sphere.
This newest stage in Williams’s oeuvre presents the next daring step in several years of loosening compositions. In Fuzzy With Issues (2018) Williams ignores any pressure to perform like a maestro, and does not bother to fill up the canvas or make her disparate elements cohere as she may have before. Maybe it’s à la German, echoing the implacable confusion of an Albert Oehlen or Michael Majerus, in paintings like Afterlife Notions (2018) that cherish the non-sequitur and the very loose end.
For those used to Williams’s graphic precision, these newer works may take some getting used to; but as paintings go, they are ultimately more naked, more brazen, shameless, and unabashed than those older more clarified works. These canvases demonstrate not a love of paint as a vehicle for illusion but rather a love of paint as paint-brushy, translucent, and limited in its means and textures. Maybe it’s the difference between gazing thirstily at a profile on a dating app, smoothed into an impenetrable, Photoshop façade, versus admiring your sleeping lover’s vulnerable body beside you, beautiful and better for its naked honesty.
ContributorGrant Klarich Johnson
Grant Klarich Johnson is a critic and curator based in New York, and a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Southern California.