As Abstract as Indigestion: Sue Williams at 303 Gallery
Sue Williams: WTC, WWIII, Couch Size
January 16 to February 22, 2014
507 West 24th Street
New York, (212) 255-1121
In Eileen Myles’s autobiographical essay, “Everyday Barf,” the poet writes, “I don’t mind today, but the everyday makes me barf.” For contemporary New York feminist artists like Eileen Myles and Sue Williams, daily life after 9/11 can seem particularly revolting, and, on a bad day, impossible to stomach. Nevertheless, Williams’s new paintings (all made in 2013), now on view at 303 Gallery, felicitously work alongside the hate that breeds disgust and contempt. In her own satirical style, Williams speaks back to the revulsion prompted by the incendiary political climate that followed September 11. The explicit political critique embedded in the work’s content and titles revisits some of the material mined in her 2010 show, curated by Nate Lowman, Al-Quaeda is the CIA, and her contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, an all-too convincing pornographic puddle of vomit titled The Sweet and Pungent Smell of Success. In the abstract paintings of WTC, WWIII, Couch Size, the push-purge impulse is no less present, as Williams addresses fears of flying debris, dizzying nausea, and the urgent, unexpected libidinal sparks that occupy post-9/11 life.
The most dazzling painting of the six large color-saturated canvasses, Philip Zelikow, Historian (titled after the executive director of the 9/11 commission) expands upon Williams’s career long preoccupation with violence, astonishment, and flight. The painting, a cascading flood of variegating intensities, moves from varying shades of sea-foam, spring, and blue-greens; as these colors gush from some invisible sphincter across the canvas, they precipitate what one critic referred to as “Pepto-Bismal pinks.” The painting also calls to mind Mary Heilmann’s Pink Trance (2010). Unlike Williams’s Philip Zelikow, Heilmann’s Pink Trance embraces the sleepy slow-motion drag of a drug like Dramamine whereas Williams’s pink tones carry an inflammatory charge designed to arouse and excite; in Philip Zelikow, these erratic pinks verge on magenta, and seem especially explosive as they jump alongside contrasting shades of electric teal and popping peony yellow.
Philip Zelikow revels in the fact that fascination can be an anchor, a way of connecting to political history, or the alienating televisual spectacle of those two flaming icons, the Twin Towers. These paintings animate through abstraction the aura of wartime tumult as they dramatize the violent collisions between the personal and the political. How does anyone internalize a historical event on the global scale of 9/11? Williams’s paintings inhabit this zone of lingering stupefaction as she revisits the World Trade Center and the disorienting swarms of historical precarity which surround it. Departing from her previous and more condensed, comic abstractions, her new paintings have dropped the sharp contours that separate shape from action, intent from effect. Trauma renders rage and distress by refusing to distinguish between them. In Retire in Fla., smoke from a firework, or an explosion dissolves the edges of emotions. There’s a recognizable heart at the matter of such queer emanations, but the roiling matter that moves out of the frame is fugitive, and evades capture. Recalling September 11 in the presence of these works, one may immediately remember that the event and its aftermath was a mess, to put it lightly. To consider the catastrophe in hindsight as WWIII, as the title of the show suggests, is not a hyperbole, for the circumstances and the stakes were real, but, at the time, abstract. Who was it even happening to? New Yorkers, or the United States? Ten plus years later, Williams’s new works reflect the anticipation of impending war while transposing it into the present moment, without sentimentality or patriotism.
Amid the melting streams of candy-colored arcs, there lies an intuitive and hard-won set of tensions exhibited in every canvas, most quizzically reflected in Otis. The bending buildings in the background scattered among dildonic shapes in the foreground coalesce in a frenzied landscape where dimensions, as in Wackyland, give way to jet streams of frothy colors whose chafing in turn produces even stranger monuments. Otis, presumably the teal moose in the middle, opens his eyes wide, but not necessarily as if he were taking it all in; his gaze suggests the quagmire of just being, especially when you’ve lost track of your emergency exits, and you can’t find the bathroom.