Los Angeles

Bri Williams, Precipice, 2020, metal, soap, curtain rod, 45 × 45 1/2 × 46 1/2".

Bri Williams, Precipice, 2020, metal, soap, curtain rod, 45 × 45 1/2 × 46 1/2".

Bri Williams

Murmurs

“The Ghost in Me”—the title of Bri Williams’s first solo show in Los Angeles—could easily be read as a self-descriptive statement written by the sculptures themselves, almost all of which contained spectral and slowly decomposing objects trapped inside shells made of hard soap. Expanding on her use of this material as a sculptural medium, Williams created these works by placing found items with personal significance—such as a crucifix; Mardi Gras masks; and an antique sign featuring Reddy Kilowatt, the former mascot for US electric companies—into molds that get filled with cut-up and molten bars of the detergent. As the soap solidifies, it begins to break down the pigmentation of the thing entombed within it; the item seeps into the environment in which it is housed, causing the encasement to become discolored.

A ghost is a breach of a boundary, a trace, a liminal figure hovering between visibility and invisibility that often seems to materialize in the dark. It was fitting, then, that Williams’s exhibition, with its six sculptures and room-size installation, was open only after sundown. In the dim gallery space, each work relied on an individual light source to reveal the item buried inside. This display approach is new for the artist. In her earlier soap pieces, the article would be suspended closer to the surface of its casing so that it could be more visible. Several of the soap forms here were lit—two light boxes illuminated a pair of wall-mounted works (Night hag and Theft, both 2020), while a large flat LED was placed behind a soap piece set into an antique china cabinet for Church Organ, 2020. A pair of freestanding sculptures—Precipice and Taylor’s Mirror, both 2020—were spotlighted from below, creating dramatic shadows on the white wall behind them. In a small installation in a separate part of the gallery, the artist brought a pair of creaky and theatrically illuminated rocking chairs to life by attaching them to a pair of windshield-wiper motors (The Conversation, 2020). Hung on a wall in this space was Closer II, 2018, which featured a dead sparrow affixed to the surface of a wood-framed mirror covered in soap, beeswax, and resin. Indeed, the show was ghoulish and gloomy, but self-consciously so: Williams undermined the macabre mood of her tableaux by putting the mechanisms of its creation on full display. 

The lack of light in Williams’s eerie presentation made the art difficult to see—every moment of revelation was attended by obfuscation, and one had to lean in close to apprehend the various details of each work. All of this peering and prowling around in the dark made me think about the ways we acquire knowledge of the world around us and come to know ourselves. The artist drives this point home with her use of masks and mirrors. Take Biting skin off lips, 2019, for which Williams first encased a hand mirror in soap, then cast the whole thing in resin. Because of its coatings, the glass inside can no longer offer a proper reflection and only registers subtle shifts in light. The mirror-soap-resin slab hung from a hook within a tall metal stand that was designed to hold a birdcage—another kind of prison. Lit dramatically from below, the sculpture was doubled by the towering shadow it cast on a nearby wall, which transformed the slab into a monolithic form, completely eliding the presence of the mirror. Williams’s obscured faces and altered reflections seemed to indicate that her show’s titular ghost also stands in for the unknowable, unnameable, and unseeable parts of ourselves. Yet Williams’s phantom perpetually shifts positions: As the ambulating visitor’s shadow intermingled with those cast by the sculptures, the viewer herself became a specter on display. The show spoke to us: “You are the ghost in me.”