New York

Michael Williams

Funny art of the late twentieth century can be split, broadly speaking, into two camps: sarcastic art that tactically reveals the illogicality of passively accepted social mores (Mike Kelley, Lee Lozano, Peter Saul), and art deploying a more subjective humor that draws from personal reference points. Apt examples here would be the self-glorification and self-depreciation (depending on the artist’s mood) of Martin Kippenberger, Maurizio Cattelan, and Urs Fischer. More recently, a number of artists have signaled another type of humor in art. If Kelley, Kippenberger, Lozano, and Saul used humor to debunk what popular culture uncritically considers “normal,” the new kind of humor in the visual arts is more of a slapstick routine—humor for its own sake.

With the paintings shown in his 2007 solo debut, also at Canada, Michael Williams fell cleanly into this last category. Like Mellow Gold–era Beck, the work in this show overflowed with ludicrous imagery: a miniature hirsute face emerging from a deodorant stick, a sheep on its hind legs wrangling an amorphous sky-blue blob. These are weird thoughts, but not really weirder than the new television ad in which two talking pigs eat a ham in a restaurant and criticize the hidden fees of cell phone plans. Digital imaging has made surrealism just another pop culture phenomenon, and one reason Williams’s new imagery isn’t as funny as it was a few years ago may be because a Heineken keg with arms, legs, and breasts just isn’t that weird anymore. Sure, Surf’n Turf 2, 2009, shows a lobster and a clam earnestly surfing the Web, and Bacon ’n’ Eggs, 2009, a paintbrush painting a fellow paintbrush. It’s not that these compositions are dishonestly weird, just that Williams’s more memorable recent paintings signal a turn away from absurdist slapstick and into a realm that expands the parameters of what strange painting can mean today.

Part of it is diversity. The acid trip of a painting Mike’s Zone, 2008, renders the wood-grain planes of a claustrophobic room in explosive colors, and its perspective dissolves into manic, wigged-out energy. Chief Solution Advisor, 2009, on the other hand, is an innocuous still life of fruits and vegetables, and Jean Junction, 2009, a set of breezy squiggles on unprimed denim. Williams paints in thin washes as often as in impasto, which he heaps on like toothpaste or frosting. Patterns are as prevalent as definite images in his new paintings, and sometimes—as in Mike’s Zone or the nature study In the Woods 2, 2008—they actually subsume the image itself with their Fred Tomaselli–like density.

There are traces of Matisse’s Fauvism, of van Gogh’s impasto, of Martín Ramírez’s patterning, and of the psychedelic colors and images that have been the hallmark of young American painters over the past five years. But it would be hard to accuse Williams of locating his paintings in a labyrinth of art-historical reference, another ubiquitous (and tired) trait of the current younger crop. Instead, his new paintings seem to wonder aloud what an autonomous image—one untethered by reference and connotation, one unimaginable to anyone else—might look like. It’s risky terrain, and sometimes the results feel flippant. This is a pretty subjective goal, and his paintings that appear the least aligned with any conceivable real world are the more traditionally “abstract” ones. But it’s not an insignificant or, ultimately, apolitical goal; Williams’s new paintings seem to be striving to articulate not so much what a world of weird looks like, but what it feels like.

Nick Stillman