Didier William: The unblinking eye

Didier William in his studio at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Contributed by Sharon Butler / Stopping by Didier William’s studio in Philadelphia recently, I was surprised and impressed to find that his colorful abstract paintings had taken a darker, more figurative turn. Born in Haiti in 1983 and raised in Miami, William told me that since the Trayvon Martin killing, he has felt a new urgency to communicate his ideas and anxieties in a more deliberate and straightforward way than abstraction allowed. The disastrous American presidential election a year ago affirmed and amplified that urgency. In “We Will Win,” his solo show on view at Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York, William presents plaintive new work that combines art-historical references and traditional techniques such as wood carving, printmaking, and collage in a moving, constructively confrontational narrative.

Didier William, Rara, 2017, collage, ink, wood carving on panel, 48 x 60 inches.
Didier William’s studio wall.

Drawing on sources such as Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 masterpiece The Death of Marat, carved and inked black figures emerge from swarms of writhing, fish-like eyes, with decorative woodcut prints and drawings collaged onto incised wooden panels. The figures are both conjured and replaced by these schools of unblinking eyes. For me, these powerful paintings also reference Gustav Klimt’s decorative patterning and, among contemporary artists, the densely layered figurative collages of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian-born artist who came to the United States at the turn of the century and received a Post-Baccalaureate certificate in 2006 from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where William now leads the MFA Program.

Didier William, close-up view of his carved eyes.

Other influences include Jacob Lawrence, whose reductive figurative paintings document important events in African-American history, and, perhaps less overtly, Barkley Hendricks and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who likewise have appropriated and updated portraiture tropes from the art-historical canon. William builds on their work by exploring and developing the power of the gaze to conjure and distort.

Didier William, installation view at TSA New York.

In addition, William’s eye motif recalls an early Kerry James Marshall painting, on view in his retrospective at The Met Breuer, that depicts a deep black figure against an almost equally dark background, the most visible feature being a pair of watchful eyes. Like Marshall, William is driven to revise not merely art history, but also American history writ large, which for too long has under-appreciated the cultural and political contributions of the nation’s black community. With this forceful new direction, William has audaciously advanced that cause.

Didier William: We Will Win,” Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY. Through November 19, 2017. 

Related posts:
Art and race: Through A Lens Darkly, Nick Cave and Jordan Casteel
New subjectivity: Figurative painting at Pratt Manhattan Gallery
Interview: Leslie Smith III in Madison, Wisconsin
Quote: Kerry James Marshall

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2 thoughts on “Didier William: The unblinking eye”

  1. I find it disheartening that all this review seems to do is comment on influence.
    It used to be that if all you could see in a work is where it came from it was a comment on how undigested, derivative and unoriginal it was. Clearly that is not the case here, and although it is part of our place in time to acknowledgement our historical and influential lineage- a counterpoint to modernism which demanded the heroic “breakthrough” and a reintegration of post modernism which left the past as patchwork-Didier Williams work deserves more engagement with how it is speaking on its own terms, even if noting historical reference is a “thing” these days.

  2. Thanks, Vanvoost, for the thoughtful comment. In this short post my goal was to point out how Didier is contributing to this important conversation. You are right, though, it could be twice as long and discuss his work itself in more depth. Perhaps I need to put together part 2…

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