criticismExhibitions
Monday, December 10th, 2018

Surfaces Sparkling: The cityscapes of Scott Williams


Scott Williams: Recent Places at 490 Atlantic

November 3 to December 18, 2018
490 Atlantic Avenue, between Nevins Street and Third Avenue
Brooklyn, 490atlantic.com

Scott Williams, Right Turn, 2018. Oil on linen, 34 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Scott Williams, Right Turn, 2018. Oil on linen, 34 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist

The paintings of Scott Williams are both deadpan and subtly poetic. If the wastelands of Brooklyn and Queens have a poetry, Williams is their laureate. I never realized how many succulent varieties of asphalt and concrete and rusted metal the boroughs have to offer, never fell for the charm of their frowzy canals and desiccated wharves until I saw these paintings.

The nine plein-air cityscapes in this show demonstrate an intensity of observation that for many viewers will recall the panoramas of Rackstraw Downes, but where Downes’s gaze warps gradually and inexorably across the canvas, Williams organizes his views around separate focal points, like Piranesi’s views of Rome in which you look simultaneously down two streets plunging into the distance at different angles.

In the foreground of Williams’s From the Roof, (2018) Jackson Avenue and 47tht Road intersect at an acute angle, flanked by massive buildings. Along the split perspective, your eye encounters a series of tiny dramas of street life–micro-events like signage, a cement mixer, parked cars–revealed in detail that manages to be meticulous without being mechanical. It’s enough to reward a longer look but not to stop the eye from navigating the rest of the intricate topography. But it isn’t the quantity of detail that makes the pictures memorable—stuffing a painting is easy–so much as the organization of incredibly complex parts into a convincing, unexpected order.

Scott Williams, From Studio Roof, 2018. Oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Scott Williams, From Studio Roof, 2018. Oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Williams has a gift for light, a perfect pitch in transposing the vast scale of daylight into the narrow tonal range of painting. Controlled richness of facture keeps his surfaces sparkling. The melding of light and surface reminds me of Ruysdael’s Quay at Amsterdam, Vermeer’s View of Delft or Corot’s The Belfry of Douai—paintings that share Williams’s fascination with vision and devotion to urban space. The exactness of Williams’s color allows him to reduce the glut of fact into a coherent mosaic that communicates precisely where things are and what the light is doing to them there.

Working outside is key to the specificity and richness of this light. A photograph inevitably flattens the interplay of direct and reflected light and the power of deep pictorial space. Of course, many great paintings have been made from photographs, but the result is different than working directly from life. That being so, why are ambitious plein-air paintings of this kind so rare? For a start, the artist must contend with the elements, with a painting you’ve been slaving away at blown on its face or soaked in a squall. And then there are the kibitzers: dogs, children, property owners, opinionated spectators. It takes a stubborn zeal to keep working in the teeth of these problems, but the payoff, at least for Williams, is a powerful sense of being present, immersed in the world.

Honestly, I don’t usually care for this kind of painting. Detail for its own sake is deadly, and diligence as an artistic goal is irritating, like watching someone try to solve a problem arithmetically that should be solved with algebra. But Williams beguiles you with the prosaic, makes you want to study the banal, patiently teaches you to see it his way.

Scott Williams, Fenced Waterfront, 2017. Oil on panel, 18 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Scott Williams, Fenced Waterfront, 2017. Oil on panel, 18 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist


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  • Jeff Wright

    Thoughtful critique. Great capture of light! Congrats.

  • cadredmed

    An excellent take on this fine observational painter’s work. I guess we’ll have to wait a few hundred years to see how Long Island City stacks up against Delft as subject material, but that it has its own beauty is undeniable.