Imagine stepping back in time to high school history class. If your experience was like mine, you may have encountered droll history books full of lists or monotone lectures. Now imagine what that class could have been like if taught by an art teacher. Bland illustrations come to life with depth and color; your imagination runs wild as you begin to wonder what our ancestors’ lives were like. Thinking (or teaching) “outside the box” gives history a breath of fresh air. That is the feeling one gets walking to into Art Enable’s current exhibition Pieces of History: The Collage Art of John M. Williams now on view in their off-Rhode studio.
Beth Baldwin, Arts Coordinator for the non-profit, toured the gallery with me and filled me in on Williams’ background. The artist lives and works in Massachusetts, and unlike the majority of their artists/clients, he has an educational background in art, earning a BFA in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell (he is also the first non-client artist to receive a solo show). While formally trained as a sculptor, Williams has learned that the medium of collage serves as a counterpoint to his autism diagnosis; the mental energy required in collating and mapping out all elements of a piece brings with it a sense of calmness and mental clarity. His interest in history, particularly in America’s civil war, informs the subject matter of most of his work and brings history to life. Pieces of History is Williams’ first solo show in Washington, DC but by no means his first foray into the gallery world. His work has been reviewed in the Huffington Post and Folk Art Messenger magazine, and he’s exhibited in several New England states, including the Outsider Art Fair in New York.
Collage suffers from a lack of prestige in the face of paint and film (despite the fact that blue chip artists from Henri Matisse to Kara Walker utilize elements of collage in their works) and can evince qualities some viewers might find brutish. While Williams work does contain elements of naïve or outsider art, those labels belay his achievement in, for example, capturing complex nuances of skin tones and facial hair (apparently a thick beard was a requirement to lead troops into battle 150 years ago) not often associated with the genre. Indeed, as we walk along a long wall hosting a dozen portraits in succession, repetitive traits in each of their faces spring to life.
Take, for example, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, where even at a distance, one is immediately drawn to the eyes. Time and again, the viewer is pulled close to the piece by the sitter’s eyes, which evoke feelings ranging from calm fortitude in the above-named piece, to weariness in Lincolns Legacy to passion in the stone-cold look of Gen. William T. Sherman. Williams’ scholarly background is evidenced by his careful consideration of how a potential light source would play across the sitter’s face. “This lends the works a painterly quality,” notes Baldwin, and it is easy to imagine each general sitting in repose facing the artist with a light source directed in from the side. Also notable is the artists’ ability to use such small paper scraps to achieve a sense of depth and texture. Beards appear bushy and hair disheveled from the wind, but perhaps the best example of this is Sacajawea, where snippets of feathers and animal prints outlining the fabled guide’s papoose solidly ground the woman into an environment at harmony with nature. It’s a feeling – an emotive expression – unlike any other in the room, and in a sense succinctly captures the cultural differences between her and the white, European men surrounding her.
Part of this emotional response is guided by Williams’ choice of foreground and background color, and a piece at the other end of the gallery from Sacajawea also bears mention as an example of his sometimes subtly jarring color composition. The large swath of whites, charcoals and grays that form the foreground uniform in Gen. Robert E. Lee draws the viewer’s eye up to the full, grey beard and somewhat saddened, humbled eyes. While he may sit stiff and formally, the effect of so many off-white tints gives the work a sense of weariness, as if the wind has been taken out of his sails. As the viewer steps back, it’s almost a shock to see violent oranges with hints of black swirling all around the general, creating a halo around his face. The effect is one of flames, perhaps suggesting General William Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ and decimation of Georgia at the end of 1864 as a seminal event in the fall of Lee’s Confederate army.
Details like these, perhaps small in nature but rich in cultural texture, encourage the viewer to stop and ponder. Do Lincoln’s haunted eyes in Lincolns Legacy presume he knew what his future held? How does it feel to be a God-king, one wonders when viewing the reserved face in Pharoah (one of the few non-civil war portraits in the exhibition)? The cumulative effect of all these stern men staring into the center of the gallery is not one of heaviness but of fascination and intrigue. Williams’ passion for history is wildly evident and in one sense, the brut nature of the works lends a laudable sense of human fragility; these are not just important historical figures, but real men whose decisions in life and war led to outcomes they could not predict. Perhaps Williams’ work lacks the refinement that comes with oils and acrylics. So be it. Art fulfills many functions, but too often we praise notions of beauty (which change on a whim) above all others. Williams reminds us that art has the power to teach in ways no history text can match.
Pieces of History: The Collage Art of John M. Williams runs through Saturday, September 28th, 2014 at Art Enables. A closing reception with the artist will take place on the 28th. For more information, please visit the gallery’s website here. For more information on the artist, visit his website here.