In his solo exhibition at Iceberg Projects, Bernard Williams’ “Blanket Paintings” evoke the historical traditions of many cross-cultural examples of blankets, ranging from woven Afghan war rugs and Navajo Chiefs’ blankets, to the Gee’s Bend crazy quilts. Williams eschews the materials and craft of these predecessors, but capitalizes on a similar type of descriptive visual narrative.
Using thrift store blankets made from synthetic polyester and scraps of chintzy, decorative faux tapestries— namely a matador on black ground in a bull fight scene, cut up and employed in no less then three pieces in the show— Williams’ slap-shod piecing of scraps, which are either stapled or glued together rather then stitched, are often emboldened with the marks of gloppy paint rings left by cans of paint that were set to rest on the blankets, as seen in Iron Nigga.
For the most part, while these works still cross and combine time periods and cultures, here Williams migrates away from imagery of the American West and the Black Cowboy that previously populated his work for a grittier, more contemporary urban realm which features everything from muscle cars, prison bars and wrecking balls to Valdez Meat Market marquees and gang signs.
The sole crossover object to the “Mine(d) Museum,” which just closed at the McCormick Gallery, is constructed from pitch black polymer clay, which looks like tar, and an internal armature of foam (seen above, on left. Image credits at bottom). It’s perched quietly in a corner of the main room, off to the side of the exquisite 6 Head, a femur bone-shaped bust with an athletic uniform number 6 next off alongside of it.
Seagram’s Hood also relates, though somewhat more tenuously, to the objects displayed row after row on shelves at the McCormick Gallery. For Seagram’s Hood, seen immediately below, the heads, buildings, gang graffiti and the like are rendered in a visual taxonomy, inventoried in an almost hieroglyphic fashion. Williams’ works inspire one to decode or read them, an impulse akin to what you might do with a rebus, where images are strung together as stand-ins for words. This impulse is upset by the non-linear and dynamic arrangement of his compositions which function to de-familiarize many of the recognizable words and symbols, placing them in what appears to be an intuitive, process-oriented collage and pastiche.
While interested in a type of history painting, perhaps for reasons akin to Kehinde Wiley's interest in the same genre, which include a desire to represent, with the same grandeur and timelessness, the individuals absent or erased from it, Williams’ portraiture in the “Blanket Paintings” tends to oscillate between two polar opposites. The first is a stylized representation of black or brown heads, or headz as the artist prefers, often with goatee and no other facial features save lips, as evidenced in Seagram’s Hood. The second is realistically rendered portrait busts, closely related to their large scale, that exhibit loose brushwork while having a tonality in skin color and dimensionality in shading, as in Boki.
Veering away from a reductive mimesis of historical tropes, Williams problematizes and personalizes both of these modes of representation, which do share one thing in common; both exhibit the artist’s conscious desire to suppress, cloak or disguise the individual. This is accomplished either through the absence of defining facial features or the literal patches and fabric scraps that disguise by draping over defining facial features, such as the blindfolded figure of Boki.
Accompanying the exhibition is a color catalog commemorating the exhibition of the “Blanket Paintings,” which was published by the gallery, and underwritten by Iceberg Projects owner Dr. Daniel Berger himself. Since Iceberg is not a commercial space and does not traffic in the sale of works on view, it’s interesting to note that the more traditional and salable medium of acrylic paint (albeit on blankets and not on canvas) that comprised this excellent show were on view at Iceberg, while across town the commercial McCormick Gallery was showing the more exploratory and experimental set of sculptures. It’s also interesting to note that the collecting and curating that Williams’ did of the objects and sculptures in his McCormick Gallery show actually more closely reflect the role of Dr. Berger himself, as an art collector and curator (along with a newly assembled advisory board) of Iceberg Projects.
The “Blanket Paintings” are an intriguing body of work that has found a generous champion in Dr. Berger and elegant digs within the Iceberg Projects space— and both Bernard Williams and the space itself suggest they will continue to reward future attention paid to them.
-Thea Liberty Nichols, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(All images are courtesy of Iceberg Projects and used with permission. Photography: Zak Archtander)