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Peter Williams
Jailbirds Rock, 2019
Oil and graphite on canvas
48 x 48 in.

The Cressman Center for Visual Arts is pleased to present Peter Williams: Incarceration, on view February 7th through March 21st, 2020.

Much “political” art today—and, indeed, much of the political art of the past forty years—has placed medium in the service of message. Such work takes the form that its content demands. But for forty years Peter Williams has been doing something quite a bit more complicated: he treats politics as a support for investigating radical painterly invention. Williams’ art is certainly about the politics of blackness—historical politics, contemporary politics, personal politics, and future politics. But Williams’ gambit is painterly, and his investigation and invention take up the vocabularies of high modernism and its demands for new modes of representation. He is a particularly inventive colorist in this regard, using a “hyperbolic” palette to compose his work. His terms are familiar; flatness and the grid loom large for him just as they did for many avant-garde painters. However, for Williams, the grid can never be disambiguated from prison bars and cages, disciplinary apparatuses that seek to organize not just a world, as the grid does for a painting, but also its inhabitants.

This is the point of departure for the exhibition Peter Williams: Incarceration. In the work on display, Williams threads historical conditions of black incarceration—the middle passage, slavery, and escape—through current modes of black incarceration— prison, cultural appropriation, and the legacy effects of redlining. These “political” threads compose the support for a similar kind of painterly weaving, one in which the artist elaborates on the modernist grid and various compositional inventions like the flatting of the picture plane and expressionistic use of line and color. Thus, for example, a ship carrying slaves across the middle passage is also a cruise ship holding prisoners of a different sort. This, in turn, serves as the support for Williams’ investigation of “dot” painting technique, gridding, and framing, such as in Voyage, Then and Now (2019). Williams’ paintings are, in this way, not about incarceration, they are about painting—but also about painting from a particular racial position and thus never “about” anything else. In this way too the work can be at once heartbreaking and funny, critical and nonsensical. It is both committed in its politics and radical in its composition.

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