Sue Williams, Purple Choke, 1995, oil on canvas, 15 × 18".

Sue Williams, Purple Choke, 1995, oil on canvas, 15 × 18".

Sue Williams

In the 1970s Sue Williams studied at CalArts, where Conceptualism ruled, but, as the story has it, she refused all its temptations in order to paint. Her paintings began as potent examinations of sexual politics and slowly evolved until they culminated in magnificent large-format abstractions. This show, encompassing small paintings—some on bits of found fabric—from 1995 and 1996, as well as collages and large paintings made between 2014 and the present, served to remind viewers of just how radically the strategies of critical art have changed, as has Williams’s painting, in ways that often wrong-foot interpreters of her work.

Williams’s small works of the mid-1990s carry a creepy intensity. Take Purple Choke, 1995. The lavender ground of the canvas recalls heroic-format abstract monochromes, but at fifteen by eighteen inches the scale is intentionally domestic. The picture beckons you to step closer, to riddle out the spidery black images that occupy its lower two thirds, which turn out to show a woman’s neck being prodded by an importunate prick, another woman’s back being prodded by something that would be comical if it wasn’t so nasty, and a hand groping one breast while the other is covered by a smudge. By the time you see what you leaned in to see, you are close enough to touch the surface of the piece. And if you can touch it, then it can touch you: You’re a complicit witness to a kind of miniaturized sexual hell, caught in a stiff meringue of claustrophobia. The anger residing in the images remains current, but the mechanism of entrapment and abjection recalls the strategies that were contemporary at the moment of their making—the shotgun marriage of Marx and Freud that was purveyed as the “libidinal economy.”

Williams subsequently went on to develop an extraordinary trajectory of styles. By the late 1990s, her abject glyphs had blossomed into allover paintings of interlocking appendages and orifices, every element either cringing or prolapsed, but all gathered together into painted tapestries that recall meadows of earthly delights. She then abandoned that style for beautiful coiling abstract lines that trailed drips of pigment down the canvas. The art historians breathed a collective sigh of relief—Williams could be understood as an artist who had transcended politically charged work for honorable abstraction. But not so fast. Figurative elements continue to burst back into Williams’s paintings, and, for all their play, they are not painterly but graphic: Outlines, traces, and arrays predominate in her recent work, though she never treats the canvas as a machine for the presentation of depth. The sense of flatness is increased by the impression that the paintings have been prepared in zero gravity, in which “up” and “down” have no stable orientation.

All the same, Williams still knows how to instrumentalize the tension between proximity and distance. A striking characteristic of her paintings from the past five years is that it’s hard to know how close to stand to them. From a distance, they appear like musical abstractions, but as you get closer the images decompose into what appear to be elements from a kind of fragmented graphic novel. The details of the cartoons are obscure until you are so near to them that the overall composition has disappeared; you are in the paintings, rather than looking at them. You could argue that the works’ spatial instability makes them political: not because of their subject matter but because, when you are far enough away, you can believe in a higher order—but close-up, this order reveals itself to be a disorienting play of troubling signs.