John Williams' Untitled, an Abstract Painting in My Home
PHOTO BY SARAH LEHRER-GRAIWERJohn Williams' work hangs on an orange wall in the author's apartment.
Pushing back against the too often rote and perfunctory experience of viewing art to which I've become habituated as an art critic doing the rounds of galleries, I decided to undertake an experiment in looking longer. I have borrowed a painting from an established local artist with the quasi-scientific intention of monitoring my daily impressions over a couple months.
Hypothesis 1: I can't be the only one desiring an occasional antidote to the rapidity increasingly expected of all present-day consumption, cultural or otherwise.
Following contemporary art affords a limited range of viewing situations: clicking through images online; turning pages in an art book or magazine; visiting a gallery where a handful of seconds or, at best, minutes is spent in front of each work; absorbing the exhausting deluge of images and text that tend to make up museum exhibitions. Few people get to enjoy physical proximity to contemporary art inside their own home. This is a shame, because it is through extended observation and private reflection that we develop personal relationships to art and culture in general.
Hypothesis 2: Borrowing or renting can make it possible to know a thing intimately without owning it.
The painting I have been living with experimentally is a large, gestural abstraction by L.A.-based artist John Williams, whose practice (neither "emerging" nor "midcareer," though closer to the latter) has involved the intersection of performance, sculpture and projection but has recently taken expressive forays into painting. The work I've borrowed is from a series of untitled paintings Williams made over the last year at his Mount Washington home and exhibited earlier this year at Brennan & Griffin Gallery in New York.
A work in the tradition of abstract expressionism, which rejected representing actual objects in favor of an energetic investigation of painting's basic materials, the painting shows the accumulated evidence of the artist's body in motion. Recording Williams' gestures as painterly thrashings, the work is a precise complement to his memorable live performances, in which he constantly arranged and rearranged a sprawling set of props and overhead projections.
Untitled, made in 2010, is big — 68 by 60 inches — and crammed full of colorful and layered activity that conveys the speed of Williams' brush. Flat, graphic shapes abut muddied smears and mottled textures. Arcing strokes mark the compasslike reach of the artist's wrist while contrasting with more detailed areas of gridded pattern.
While there are some bulging globs of paint on the surface, it's the overlapping actions that really give the picture an illusion of dizzying depth. With intertwining lines curving, streaking and corkscrewing all over, this is an emphatically active, nearly explosive painting, which promises to activate even further with prolonged, daily viewing.
My borrowed John Williams took its place near the front door, on a tall wall painted orange — the only wall of that color in my two-bedroom apartment. I immediately noticed that the color affects the painting's overall palette, somehow both amplifying its warm tones and sinking them back slightly to coincide spatially with the plane of the surrounding wall.
Hung near sliding glass doors that open onto a balcony, the painting became more colorful over the course of the first day. Fleshy pinks, sanguine reds, dull purples, deep watery blues and flecks of leaf green came to the fore in the afternoon. This change, in part resulted from time passing.
Hypothesis 3: Patience increases the sensitivity of the eye, perhaps the mind.
But it had more to do with the brightening of the day as the sun burned off the morning haze, and was a reminder that the quality of light drastically alters a painting's luster, clarity, contrast and intensity of color.
Hypothesis 4: Looking at art not only depends on the viewer's eye but also affirms the uniqueness and instability of every lived moment; let art be a foil that throws the world around it into relief.
A painting this big and this busy took some time to get used to. For many weeks it would surprise me when I would glimpse it from my bedroom down the hall or through a doorway. Its presence redefined the living-dining room, adding a second focal point to counterbalance the television opposite it.
Hypothesis 5: Experiencing art at home grants permission to the viewer to ignore it or indulge in it according to the ebb and flow of her wandering attention.
There is a productive freedom to viewing a painting over dinner or while lying on the couch, watching Project Runway; reacting to it while surrounded by the minor surprises of daily life can be a catalyst for daydreams.
The more I focused on the painting's depth and density, the more I began to make out the sequence in which Williams applied his layers of paint. In general, the ground-level layers are more tightly bound to flat, graphic shapes and grids while subsequent overlapping strata get progressively loose and frenetic.
Hypothesis 6: Abstract expressionism and its variants tap a viewer's natural impulse to reverse-engineer any mysterious material phenomenon and, by doing so, glean an understanding of its internal workings, its order.
Yet the eye's efforts to cleanly parse one grayish-white smudge from the black swath underneath and the blue skin seemingly pressed rather than brushed on top of it are confined to narrow passages of questionable clarity. The eye eventually surrenders out of exhaustion to the overall chaos. Despite the apparent chronology of Williams' process, this painting ultimately illustrates the inseparability of its numerous levels.
Hypothesis 7: A composition's interconnectedness gradually becomes an entire worldview, suggesting that this is how we should understand our relation to others in today's global scheme: deeply entangled, perhaps woefully inextricable.
A few days in, I gravitated specifically to all the smeared, scraped and squeegeed bands of paint — especially the irresistible rainbow arch sideways along the right edge near the bottom, and the red and yellow striped switchbacks to its left. Some days later, I started discerning large, underlying shapes concealed within the frenzy of surface activity. A big, white arrow takes up the lower half of the canvas, pointing northwest from the bottom right corner to the center of the canvas. A transparent square bends and waves directly above it in the top right corner. It was nearly a month before I noticed a small, beige, rectangular box in the upper left corner, which appears to be the painting's only geometric volume that's shaded and rendered in perspective.
A friend who came for dinner remarked that the painting gave a strong impression of covering up something behind it. Like a portal to something or somewhere?
Hypothesis 8: A painting can stir up dormant energy, like curtains mounted on a solid wall that, when parted, reveal a window that miraculously materialized through the power of suggestion.
Away from home, I sometimes thought of Untitled from a distance and noted what features memory distorted: Its sense of frenzy survived undiminished, but the painting grew more open and spacious than it is in reality. Similarly, the painting took on a new, slightly altered aspect when viewed passively in the periphery of vision: Whenever I locked my gaze on it when it was off to one side, it slipped easily into hallucinatory motion, warping and drifting subtly until suddenly jolted back into its static place when I blinked or refocused my eyes.
Hypothesis 9: Indirect viewing, whether remotely in memory or along the blurry sidelines of sight, is a totally valid and deeply rewarding — if underappreciated — way of taking art in and absorbing abstraction on a deeper, cellular level.
The painting is still in my home. I am looking at it now, as this experiment wraps up, anticipating its absence when it returns to its maker, and I now realize that the experience of not living with the painting will be just as much a part of the experiment.
Hypothesis 10: Now that I am, finally, used to its daily presence and the painting is part of my household, its departure will occasion a glaring emptiness ghosted by an after-image that will fade too fast.
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