New York

Megan Williams

Bravin Post Lee

With her two previous shows devoted to drawing, this exhibition of paintings represents both a departure and a challenge for Los Angeles artist Megan Williams. In making the transition to painting, she joins Sue Williams and Kim Dingle, among other satirically engaged artists, in stepping up from the ostensibly small-time school of drawing, where women have traditionally been welcome to amuse themselves, and entering the ring with the brush-wielding fraternity of figurative painters.

The biggest departure in these works of the past two years is one of scale. Williams’ paintings look like large drawings: they’re dry in appearance, with the shadowy colors and thin, crumbly surfaces that immediately evoke the artist’s pastels. Her cartoon style remains intact as well, but it is made gargantuan, as are the now-familiar cyclones, satyrs, and masturbators that animate her art. This enlargement turns what had been simply naughty into something more alarming, even threatening; as such, her leap into painting proves quite perspicacious, transforming her drawings into more seriously ridiculous artworks. (Setting her own dignity on the line, the artist says she likes it when her works leave her feeling somewhat embarrassed.) In Pumpkin Heads, 1995, a painting of some mysterious Halloween event, every figure sports pumpkin heads; amid the scrambling arms and legs, a tall, parental figure being held as a bound captive is discernible. Several of his lilliputian captors are equipped with wooden bats (a perfect weapon for smashing glowing pumpkin grins).

Elsewhere, loony incidents give way to darker or grander themes of self-indulgence, sin, and pure pleasure. Food appears prominently in Silenus, 1995, in which the subject is in the process of being smothered by an attacking cornucopia of produce. In Spelunker, 1995, the food imagery gives way to the orgiastic: a wee naked man crawls beneath a food-laden bower into a cave that originates between the legs of a giant woman. Self-control and denial seem to be impossibilities in Belt Tightening, 1995, in which a man wrestles with a rambunctious girth that explodes into a button-popping circumference at the same time that it shrinks to skeletal remains.

Williams’ work lends itself to easily constructed narratives (a potential agreeably explored in the excellent artist’s book that accompanies the show). There’s something of the medieval here, when gargoyles and grotesque caricatures fulfilled an instructive moral purpose. In Williams’ modern renditions, however, the seven deadly sins seem no longer to be discrete in form but are scrambled into an enticing mélange representing a generalized fun-filled wickedness. Having risen to meet the challenges of large-scale painting, Williams works without abandoning the low humor and popular narratives that make her work successful.

Ingrid Schaffner