Waltzing Mathilda

Peter Williams: Midnight Waltz in D Minor
Paul Kotula Projects, Ferndale, Michigan
Through December 3, 2011

One of the problematic legacies of Modernism was its emphasis on originality, youth, and the myth of the artist who sprang sui generis into a recognizable, signature style. There were rare exceptions, such as Picasso and Matisse, who remained in the canon and were allowed to mature and develop their works past their youthful experiments and achieve a late body of work. Admittedly, the fact that they lived to be ninety sort of bludgeoned the historians and critics into pretty much accepting whatever they did just because they refused to die. On the other hand, de Kooning lived just as long, and his constant morphing of styles proved to be equally as protean but not as accepted, and his later painting was more or less dismissed until well after his death. What gets overlooked in this now familiar pattern of looking at artists is the fact that most of them go through a period of adolescence after their initial "breakthrough" works, and then they slowly hone their style. This period of artistic growth, often overlooked, is usually the most interesting of an artist's career.

Peter Williams's current show at Paul Kotula Projects catches the artist in this period of his development, and at the top of his game. Williams's paintings of the last twenty years or so were alternately sharp, witty, or darkly satirical. With time he has grown into a much more personal and somewhat melancholic style, shedding inhibitions and allowing his paint to convey the expression of his personality and ideas in a beautiful synthesis. This is not to say that he has lost any of the edge that his earlier works had -- the painting "Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead" (1995) in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is a great example of Williams at his best -- rather, he seems to have allowed his personal narrative into his paintings to great effect. In the painting "A Walk in Windsor Hills" (2011), he incorporates elements of Post-Impressionism, Ensor, and Klee-like explorations of human form, mixing styles with a delight in paint that his earlier works tried to hold at bay.

In "The Unmasking" (2011) [above] we get something of a self-portrait, in a bright, carnivalesque style reminiscent of Picasso. Fear and fantasy are interwoven, and the artist confronts his own identity -- that of a black, middle-aged male. Psychological states are conflated with the physicality of his body (Williams lost a leg in a car accident at an early age), and the results are painted with sweeping, dance-like gestures.

This is not to say that there aren't still shadows left to explore, and Williams does poke around a bit in the darker recesses of the soul. "Blow" (2010) gives us a ghostly, haunted canvas of a figure in a chalk-stripe suit, peering out of the shadows. There is something of Gorky in this piece, with its outlined figures and transparent arabesques, but there is enough of Walt Disney, with big cartoony eyes and heads, to keep the horror away.

The funny thing about growing old is that life doesn't really become more complicated. In fact, it kinda becomes simpler. Most days everything can be summed up with one of two questions: How bad will it hurt? or How much will it cost? It comes as no surprise, really, that most Late Works (Matisses cut-outs, for example) bring this reductive philosophy to visual form. But in Williams's works, we also see something more. Émile Zola called for "an Art of flesh and blood":  "What I look for in a picture before anything else is the man." Williams gives us this, and more, in these works. - Bradley Rubenstein

Paul Kotula Projects is at 23255 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, Michigan (Detroit metropolitan area).

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

 

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