Michael Williams, Cow in Computer Lab, 2019, oil on canvas, 100 1⁄4 × 78 1⁄8".

Michael Williams, Cow in Computer Lab, 2019, oil on canvas, 100 1⁄4 × 78 1⁄8".

Michael Williams

Michael Williams’s new paintings are as subversive as they are dazzling. His recent exhibition included both colorful semiabstract works and more straightforward figurative compositions, some of them mocking self-portraits. The mix showed just how talented this virtuoso painter is at deploying strategies that are currently fashionable in painting: ink-jet printing; compositions that look like pastiches of modernist styles, including dripping, collaging, and cutouts; motifs that verge on the grotesque or comic; and works that address the issues of framing and edge. The upshot was an insight into the plight of so many of today’s painters: their difficulty in maintaining a certain artistic auto-nomy in the face of an art market hungry for trend products.

While all the paintings on view were challenging, the best were those whose jigsaw-like forms and pastel colors refused any easy assignment of meaning. The point of departure for some of these works was a pair of near-identical canvases, not included in the present show, titled Truth About Painting 1 and Truth About Painting 2, both 2017, which depict an open tube of paint that might as well be a prescription ointment, replete as it is with instructions for dosage. Inspired in part by Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting (1987), the works suggest that standard notions of likeness, center, and frame need treating. The task of the painter is not to represent things but to allow room for their “remainders”—which are, as it were, “untranslatable”—so as to enable something nonrepresentative to appear.

Those leftovers, be they colors, strokes, or fragments of forms, are the very stuff of Williams’s new paintings. Cow in Computer Lab, 2019, is one stunning example. Try as we may, we find no cow in evidence here, nor any indication of something that resembles a computer lab. Instead, the painting is dominated by shards of shapes, dabs of colors, and drips of paint that cohere into patterns that look almost hallucinogenic. To be sure, altered ways of seeing very much interest the artist. But the title of the self-portrait Dead Hippie, 2019, a takeoff on Paul Thek’s 1967 sculpture The Tomb—Death of a Hippie, implies that neither dope nor spirituality could open the door to the alternative take on reality Williams was after. Instead, he found the master key locked up deep within himself: a deeply ingrained bent toward destroying form and demolishing art-historical isms. All he needed to proceed was a sharp scissors and a recent version of Adobe Photoshop. The result of a number of adjustments to the original hand-drawn image is amazing constellations of forms that seem to endlessly emerge and recede within so many of his semiabstract paintings. Many of the titles subversively play upon the meaning of words, too. Take, for example, Marfa’s Vineyard, 2019, an allusion to both Marfa, Texas, once the site of Donald Judd’s studio, and Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island long considered a haven for artists and writers.

Apart from offering the pure pleasure of looking, such canvases also prompt us to rethink what constitutes an image. By now, after all, Photoshop has modified the rules of imagemaking beyond Derrida’s wildest dreams. The layered look of Williams’s paintings suggests, too, that he has thought hard about a related, more complex issue: the similarities between Photoshop and the historical technique of cel animation. Adobe’s raster graphics editing program has more than might be expected in common with a movie camera on top of an old-style animation stand, recording shapes and lines imprinted on many different layers from which moving images will arise in the mind’s eye. The experience of looking at one of Williams’s semiabstract paintings calls to mind a similar process of looking, albeit one that requires a conscious effort in order for the viewer to maintain a distance from the stunning effect of the surface images. Somewhere deep down in Cow in Computer Lab, more concrete references to that unruly scenario must lie. In the meantime, Williams has given our eyes more than enough to feast upon: an imaginative counteruniverse that vibrates with an animated quality seldom found in contemporary painting.