New York

Sue Williams

The abrasive, quasi-agitprop style usually associated with Sue Williams’ work seems to have been left behind in her latest paintings. This development will doubtless disappoint some supporters, just as it will likely mollify some detractors. All of which only goes to prove that Williams’ work has a strange propensity for making a good part of its viewership lose its critical faculties altogether; they either flee in horror or slavishly applaud without ever looking the monster in the face.

In fact, Williams has never been content to follow a straight line; not only has she experimented with sculpture and installations (the latter brilliantly, in a group show at the Drawing Center several years ago), but her trademark in-your-face images have always been more subtle, and far more various in subject and style, than her reputation for provocation and complaint would suggest. More importantly, because drawing has been a unifying factor in Williams’ work, she has always had to face the fundamental artistic problems posed by the attempt to transpose graphic motifs into other, more publicly assertive media. Until now, Williams has succeeded only erratically.

The real change these recent paintings represent is the completely assured, unaffected transposition of the observational perspicacity and expressive intensity of drawing into painting. In the past, many of Williams’ paintings have been overtly ordered by language: not only has writing itself featured prominently in her imagery, but the images tended to be organized narratively and with didactic blockiness. In the new works, by contrast, visual associations play a much stronger role in the placement of the images, while the inscriptions have become secondary, serving almost as footnotes. As a result, Williams’ line is more fluid, articulate, and various, while color comes into play, if only as the subtly inflected quasi-monochrome grounds that give each painting its own intonation, quite distinct from the didacticism of black and white.

This coloristic subjectivism is more than a background against which old protests declare themselves. Although Williams’ images still speak of degradation and humiliation and new indignities have been added to the repertoire—such as those suffered by the mother whose infant refuses her breast—her style now stakes a forthright claim to enjoyment and mastery. The very “emptiness” of a painting like Tree of Life, 1994, indicates the artist’s complete freedom with her material, the insouciant disengagement of esthetic license and moral repugnance from their apparent contradiction: she keeps these two realms, those of debasement and enjoyment, distinct rather than completely separate and unreconciled.

Barry Schwabsky