Los Angeles

Sue Williams

Sue Williams has taken doodling to remarkable places, the grimmest areas a mind and body can go, or rather the doodle has taken her and her audience there. Tidbits of her autobiography—that she was physically abused by slimes—are by now well-known. In her paintings trauma is viewed with both objectivity and a dark mirth. Part of their power, why they have worked, is in their presentation of a type of comedy no one had really seen before—what Americans are now afraid to call black humor—especially from a woman, and in what medium? Painting? The bluntest approach to picturemaking in a long time.

The particular settings of Williams’ aesthetic violence continue to be freefloaty surfaces: the canvas as bedroom/ notepad/brain, with no furniture. Figures masturbate and horse around in cruelty. Her new paintings—even without Williams’ familiar writing—still have the fresh informality of her older works. But if they seem to have gone mute, the images alone, in flat constellation, show and tell each other their sex parts: lots of leg, haunch, and butthole. The figures are displayed in precarious repose, in weird outfits, psycho tops, testicles drooping below the hemlines of faceless figures in ultragirly dresses. A horse’s narrow head atop a bloated body, a vagina resting high on the crotch with pubic hair like parentheses. I’d like to say they look like the distracted sketches of an evil fashion designer.

It’s tricky when a storyteller stops using words to tell her stories. Williams’ brutal comic banter of the past—an image of drippy cocks in the ear, nose, mouth, and eyeball with the phrase “Try to be more accommodating” in the upper-left-hand corner—gave the claustrophobic material some breathing room. The writing was always very brief, a sentence here and there, but it had the devastating irony of something coming from a scriptwriter-genius, a Billy Wilder of pain.

In the new works there’s actually some air, some blank spaces (a psyche at rest?). Subtlety is making its way into her new paintings. They are smudgy, scratchy, and Twombly-like in their blurry, internal logic. Her figures partly disappear into abstracted grounds as well as become abstracted themselves. The color that mother would insist her sweet, young, angel daughter live in, the buttery yellow backgrounds, like the gel over a lens, make the scene all the more demented (violence on a beautiful sunny day). Daisies, 1996, is a pink-and-yellow, daisy-print bedsheet with a field of contorted figures and objects (old phonograph player, duck heads, etc.) evenly distributed across its seven square feet. It’s less clear than in earlier pieces just what Williams’ characters are up to. Maybe just being perverse on a Sunday afternoon. They’re kind of alone, armless or without torsos—a greased-out crotch, a headless woman on her side. But the figures are stylized as well; they’re now more about lines and forms than diagramming some episode. Looked at fast or with a cloudy head, they could be taken as the underpainting for Picasso’s Guernica. Sue Williams at war. The porn version.

Benjamin Weissman