East City Artnotes: Stephanie J. Williams Things That Don’t Have Names

By Elsabé Johnson Dixon on June 20, 2019
Stephanie J. Williams, Things That Don’t Have Names (detail), 2019. Mixed Media site-specific installation. Dimension variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Things That Don’t Have Names is a site-specific sculptural installation by the interdisciplinary DC artist Stephanie J. Williams. The exhibition is on view at the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) through June 22, 2019. Of Filipino and African American descent, the artist investigates themes of identity through individual objects hung on the wall in a collective grouping that looks like specimens in a lab. While the installation of both hard and soft pink forms may make us think of skin, or sex or food, all are strangely abstracted. These objects are curiosities. They may seem recognizable and even familiar, but they remain strange and undefinable.

One approach to understanding this work by Williams is to reference the theoretical notion of art as sublime; something both horrible and beautiful; something that catches the viewer in a place between what is terrifying but at the same time also fascinating in a pleasing way. [1] The installation is a smorgasbord of sensually pleasurable forms that hover between what look like creepy specimens in a science lab and the soft pink flesh revealed in a pornography photograph. Many shapes elicit responses of disgust and allure simultaneously. This is an artist who clearly understands how to manipulate her material, while working in the long tradition of Arte Povera, an Italian term for “poor art” or “impoverished art” which emerged in the 1960s when artists in Italy began to use discarded everyday things to express new narratives and meaning.[2] In Williams’ work, like the artists of post WWII Italy, one senses a renewed appreciation for things discarded by society at large, and a closer look at how we tend to respond to the material through our senses.

Stephanie J. Williams, Things That Don’t Have Names (detail), 2019. Mixed Media site-specific installation. Dimension variable. Courtesy of the artist.

In an interview with GRACE gallery director Lily Siegel, Williams related that she made these small objects to embody props, which she could manipulate into narrative scenes for video.[3] Williams teaches animation at Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA) and also presented a stop motion workshop at the gallery on June 15. She takes everyday materials and crafts them into abstract forms that take on metaphorical characteristics. What look like body parts or food, Williams created these objects from material remnants and conceptualized these as forms to symbolize other things. Tube socks and useful wood parts become sensual and repelling as they draw on the viewer’s material knowledge and memory of encounters with things and surfaces like these. Piles of trash become detailed, transformed and seductive objects that tell stories as puppets do in a Filipino puppet theater. Each object lures the viewer in, but it is the impression of the whole that demands a unified narrative.

Stephanie J. Williams, Things That Don’t Have Names (detail), 2019. Mixed Media site-specific installation. Dimension variable. Courtesy of the artist.

As mentioned above, Williams identifies as both Filipino and African-American. Her immigration story, of holding multiple cultures in one life, has had a critical impact on her work. During the Creative Response programming at GRACE, director Lily Siegel invited relevant speakers who are not necessarily working in the arts to give cross-disciplinary input. Genevieve Villamora is the co-owner of Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant in Northwest DC, and was asked to look at the exhibition and see if she could draw some meaning from it. Villamora, also a Filipino immigrant, stated that Williams’ work was easy to interact with because it immediately engages her as restaurateur with its tactile familiarity. Villamora was particularly drawn to the sausage shapes in Williams’ installation, which recalled for her the Longanisa, a Filipino breakfast sausage eaten with sinagag (garlic fried rice) and pritong itlog (fried egg). This sausage, Villamora says, epitomizes the social fabric of Filipino families. She adds that these sausage forms recall for her metaphorical links to being both connected and estranged. Williams’ installation depicts these forms as both tight and loose links and Villamora interprets them as holding two very different worlds. Food as metaphor is a helpful discussion; it triggers the same primal sensory responses as color, texture and form do in sculpture. These forms in Williams’ installation describe standing in-between two worlds.


[1] The theory of sublime art was put forward by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/sublime

[2] Germano Celant (b. 1940) coined the name and was the movement’s most important spokesman. He wrote his essay Arte Povera in Milan in 1969. See also https://www.theartstory.org/movement-arte-povera.htm.

[3] Interview with the artist and Lily Siegel, Director of the GRACE Gallery.