Critics’ Picks

Sarah Williams, Southard Street, 2020, oil on panel, 18 x 24".

Sarah Williams, Southard Street, 2020, oil on panel, 18 x 24".

Los Angeles

Sarah Williams

George Billis Gallery | Los Angeles
2716 South La Cienega Boulevard
April 10–May 8, 2021

Sarah Williams typically paints the pastoral landscapes and small communities of her rural Midwestern upbringing, devoid of people yet brimming with the promise (or threat) of human presence. Her exemplary nocturnal scenes of ranch-style homes on empty streets are executed in a realist mode—à la Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth—but her use of color and light could have been influenced by Walt Disney or Thomas Kinkade. In her current show, “Southeast of Home,” she adds tropical heat to the mix: The works were inspired by her 2020 residency at the Studios of Key West in Florida. Twelve of the thirteen small-scale, oil-on-panel images here are nightscapes that have been titled after the islet city’s streets.

Williams applies enchanting pinks, whites, and oranges to illuminate Conch cottages festooned with strings of Christmas bulbs and porch lanterns. There are also moments of ambient light, perhaps emanating from unseen streetlamps. Most of the windows, interiors, thick surrounding foliage, and palms are left in relative darkness. The artist’s omission of people from these pictures raises our hackles, much as the absences in fairy tales do—think, for instance, of Goldilocks awaiting the bears’ return, or the Pied Piper of Hamelin luring the ungrateful townsfolk’s children away. These strategies cause an eerie psychological slippage that’s especially apparent in Eaton Street and Southard Street, both 2020. The idyllic houses seem to offer safety and familiarity, but they transmit a dissonant atmosphere, as if they are decorated roadside memorials or cold facsimiles of long-lost ideals.

Key West is undoubtedly a paradise, but “Bone Island,” as it’s sometimes referred to, also has a seamy taint, smeared with the flotsam and jetsam of society that collects at the tail end of America—criminals on the lam, right-wing swamp trash, strip-club habitués, sex tourists, hordes of belligerent drunks disgorged from coral-killing cruise ships. If Williams’s murky tableaux are the creeping antidote to Kinkade’s divine sickliness, she couldn’t have found a town more conducive to exploring the dichotomy.