Alun Williams: Lest we forget

Alun Williams, Statue de Jules Verne, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas, 16 x 13 inches

Contributed by David Humphrey / What is it to have a life? It’s overwhelming to imagine the pile-up of lives that have preceded ours, some documented, even celebrated, but mostly not. Alun Williams seems to say “pick one, and let it intersect with yours for a moment.” It could turn out that unexpected epiphanies will result from attempting to imagine the life of a single expired other, or we might come to understand ourselves as an assemblage of unacknowledged others and their disappearing effects. Williams makes paintings that are indirect and perversely elaborated portraits of people in the past who have come to his attention for one reason or another. He is an itinerant historian using the expanded research tools of postmodernism to stimulate his painterly hybridizations. Williams’ paintings conjure unconsidered possibilities and illuminate obscure areas of the collective imagination.

Lest is both a word and a book by Alun Williams. The word indicates a fear of the possibility of something happening and is always followed by what should be avoided. The dangers articulated in the book are obscure, perhaps metaphysical, but to immerse in its wealth of images and cross-fertilized imagery is to ward off sleepy forgetfulness. It converts the past into a body of generative, anticipatory possibilities.

Alun Williams, Jules & Victorine Standoff, 2010, oil and acrylic on canvas, 15 9/10 × 20 1/10 inches
Installation view, Villa Tamaris Contemporary Art Center

For Lest, Williams and his motley crew of three friends collaborate on the selection of, and research into, a person they have decided will be worth their collective time. The project sends them into the field in quest of knowledge about their chosen subjects and to find an accidental paint spill that will serve in Williams’ imagery as a surrogate for the person being researched. The selection criteria are both random and rigorous as the location and morphology of the spill need to simultaneously satisfy many conditions. Once chosen, the splat is rendered over and over in drawings and paintings that provide a variety of locations and social encounters, each time animating the depicted spill’s now doubly frozen liquidity.

In Jules & Victorine I, 2011 a red Jules Verne faces a white Victorine Meurent on the beach. Their blobby indeterminacy is articulated with a painterly dash that animates them as much as the gooey anthropomorphism of their shapes. The painting becomes a choreography of liquids under a variety of pressures. The sea is held down by gravity and agitated by weather and the artist’s swift mark-making. The two spilled paint-blob stand-ins for Jules and Victorine are proudly upright on this clear day while Victorine’s head morphs into a passing cloud. Here they are again in other paintings in front of a large building on a wet day or back at the beach. Sometimes Victorine appears in the form of a Picasso nude, inspired by her role as Manet’s model for Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, meeting Jules in hotel rooms or for a picnic in the country.

Williams renders these encounters with a casually swift muscularity that suggests that the staged encounters are fleeting and the artist is already moving on to the next subject. Paint itself sometimes spreads across the canvas, not quite meeting the edge, as a disciplined squarish cousin to the dripping splat depicted on the brushed surface. Williams’ repetitions and image selection perform something both arbitrary and magical. The images exercise the power of naming to change things in the world; associations are built into matter and traces of the laboring body. Contingent history is saturated with idiosyncratic affect while the artist tells a story of the self as a liquid fiction.

Installation view, Villa Tamaris Contemporary Art Center
Alun Williams, Deux saintes vierges, 2012, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches

Williams treats his locations, which range widely across time and space, as another protagonist. Suburban back yards, fancy gardens and villas, trailer parks and a variety of interiors provide space and amusing thematic context for his disguised historical personages. He stokes a charged sociability between creature and habitat. The relation between representation and memory, text and context is theatricalized. Postmodern heterogeneity is no longer a disruption; Williams uses different picture languages and styles as if they were themselves actors in a fluid transhistorical drama.

In his most recent body of work, completed at the Villa Tamaris residency, Williams burrows into the life of Michel Pacha, a late nineteenth century French sea captain and builder of lighthouses along the Ottoman coast. Williams uses the lighthouse as an avatar for Michel Pacha to tell the story of a life committed to the safe movement of boats and people across water. Michel Pacha used his new wealth to build a fancy chateau for his family and a resort community that includes the Villa Tamaris where Williams’ made these new paintings. Jules Verne returns to the scene and the women in Michel Pacha’s life make appearances in the guise of Orientalized figures from art history: Ingres, Matisse, Picasso.

Installation view, Villa Tamaris Contemporary Art Center

But the lighthouse is the most frequent player. Long rolls of burlap are filled from end to end with a sequence of lighthouse paintings derived from famous and not so famous images. The tower, a guide and beacon, once warned of danger but has become, thanks to satellites and sophisticated telecommunications, a tourist attraction, subject of postcards and landscape paintings, selfie backgrounds, and amusement for passing cruise ships. The neutered towers have evolved into a symbol used by municipalities to brand their locations, aided by guidebooks to tell the story of a lost and picturesque past. Williams’ depictions range between accurate descriptions and moody symbolist suggestions. Sometimes specific artists are cited, like Paul Signac or J.M.W. Turner. But the essentially generic character of these images somehow liberates them as paintings. The work launches into a sea of floating signification moored loosely to Michael Pacha. Paint clogs the soft grid of the burlap’s surface as waves swallow boats and lights beam into the night sky. The lighthouse stands tall, there for all to see, reliable and enduring, resurrected and re-erected, the opposite of an accidental paint spill. Yet, for Williams, the lighthouse is a capable, if not equivocal, memorial for whatever you like. Reassign its meaning, attach a rhino, throw in some angels! The painted lighthouse stands above the turbulent waters of time and history like a raised middle finger, an erectly self-possessed figure exiled from function and free to roam.

The itinerancy of maritime navigation is like the movement of the unmoored self, passing between roles, obligations, and desires. The fixed idiomatic image provides unreliable bearings. But memory is tripped and quickened by the painting’s ritual/devotional mimesis and Williams’ unhinged lyrical history.

“Alun Williams: Lux Fecit,” curated by Isabelle Bourgeois, Villa Tamaris Contemporary Art Center, Métropole Toulon Provence Méditerranée, 295, Avenue de la Grande Maison, La Seyne-sur-Mer. Through February 9, 2020.

About the author: David Humphrey is a New York artist who has shown nationally and internationally. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize among other awards. An anthology of his art writing, Blind Handshake, was published by Periscope Publishing in 2010. He teaches in the MFA program at Columbia and is represented by the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, NY.

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Related posts:
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Images: Postwar Women
Yulia Iosilzon: Trapped in paradise
Invitation: Houses in Motion, a tectonic tremor

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