New York

Sue Williams

“I just figure all women are feminists unless they really hate themselves.” This statement issues from Sue Williams, in a recent interview with fellow artist Nate Lowman, as she accounts for shifts over the past twenty years in both her practice and its context. If Williams—who has all too easily and often been roped into simplified narratives around identity politics and, more specifically, traumatic power dynamics and violent corporeality as played out in sexualized representation—states with ease her belief that feminism can be aligned with self-respect, the real gravity of such a view is perhaps much heavier than it initially seems.

Indeed, Williams’s multivalent practice, while consistently legible as a project both political and formal (and vitally so), has also tended to act as a moving target, held up over the years to exemplify the more unseemly aspects of the battle between the sexes. For many of Williams’s critics, her work has represented either an angry retort or a self-loathing admonition: not outstripping the situations she portrays but hyperbolizing them. And when she transitioned from her seemingly most explicit period of work, made in the early 1990s, to more abstract, lyrical, “painterly” experiments at the end of that decade, she was, ironically, queried about whether her dedication to the cause had waned or if she was, at last, somewhat outgrowing her rancor.

I rehearse these insufficient generalizations here since criticism ought to attend not only to artistic practices but also to their reception over time—analyzing, that is, the ways in which a given project has been placed and misplaced in discourse, while suggesting alternative routings. In the case of Williams, perhaps most baldly at stake is the fact that her work has quite fearlessly addressed misogyny’s omnipresence and vicissitudes on its own terms, utilizing even explicit imagery with ulterior motives. That a number of male artists (Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon) have taken up related—if also importantly different—themes and strategies without having them mapped smoothly onto their person (with their approaches instead generally read in relation to larger social conditions and symptoms) is, in this regard, notable. In fact, spending time with “Al-Qaeda Is the CIA” (Williams’s most comprehensive retrospective to date—conspicuously not staged by a museum, and, in an arrangement I do not fully understand, curated by Lowman), I was newly immersed in the complexity of Williams’s weave, whereby the hilarious and the horrific, the pathetic and the pithy, the lush and the lascivious are tightly interlaced.

Boasting fifty-eight works made between 1989 and the present, the exhibition not only afforded a long view of Williams’s oeuvre but also gave the impression of an argument still very much in process. Comprising drawings, collages, wallpaper, paintings, and sculpture, the show commingled what some might consider datable and distinct concerns: the head-on affront to abuse played out on the bodies of women; a formal investigation of the organic boundary between abstraction and figuration (and the perversity this exercise yields); and, more recently, a forceful inquiry into racism and sexism as encoded within (and obfuscated by) public policy. Interestingly, then, a drawing in ink and glitter from 2002, Pinheads, in which a gaggle of idiots gaze at a nuclear explosion, feels ruefully current, while a collage from this year, Inside Job, directs us back to 9/11, and insists that this event should hardly be regarded as “history,” but, rather, as one chapter in a larger story continuing to unfold.

For a very long time—and with new vigor in the past few years—a number of thinkers (Gertrude Stein, Rosalyn Deutsche, Judith Butler, Helen Molesworth, Jacqueline Rose) have insisted that war in all its complexities be understood as central to feminist inquiry and vice versa. Williams’s show stresses this relationship, but effortlessly, letting her work do the work for her. To this end, a small piece—not overtly pronouncing anything about war or feminism—that I had not seen before caught my fancy and stays with me: The New Beer, 1996, a small acrylic drawing in which a woman, long dress pulled up, high-heeled feet splayed, gives us a full-frontal view while she pisses like a man, never letting go of her swill.

Johanna Burton