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At U of L's Cressman Center, Peter Williams' Work Uses Joyful Colors To Tackle Black Incarceration

"Incarceration, New Nation!," Peter Williams, 2019, Oil-based enamel, oil, and graphite on canvas, 72 x 144 in.
Natalie Weis
"Incarceration, New Nation!," Peter Williams, 2019, Oil-based enamel, oil, and graphite on canvas, 72 x 144 in.

If comedy equals tragedy plus time, artist Peter Williams is defying the mathematics of the aphorism in his newest paintings. In his works, Williams compresses time and expands painterly space to extract a subversive sense of humor from acts of violence and oppression, even in the midst of their perpetuation. “Peter Williams: Incarceration,” a show of his work on view at the Cressman Center, tackles themes of black incarceration — both historical and contemporary — through paintings that sing with exuberant form and hyperbolic color. The overall effect is, by turns, shocking, joyful and unnerving.

Born into a middle-class black family in upstate New York, Williams immersed himself in art and painting from an early age, studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Maryland Institute of Art. It was after receiving his M.F.A. from the latter that he moved to Detroit, where he was exposed to the city’s entrenched racial tensions and socioeconomic segregation — themes which he began to investigate in his paintings.

Williams taught and practiced in Detroit for nearly two decades before taking a teaching position at the University of Delaware where he found himself back in a predominately white, middle-class environment. Then in 2012, an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator; in the months that followed, numerous police shootings of African Americans received national attention. Around the same time, legal scholar Michelle Alexander was making headlines with her book "The New Jim Crow," in which she posited that the disproportionately large number of African American males incarcerated in the U.S. amounted to systemic racism. 

Both of these developments deeply affected Williams and lent a new sense of urgency to his work.

“It made me aware of the fact that the history of this country as you begin to look into it is a constant repetition of reconstruction,” he said. “We see that also in the fact that whites are inundated with perceptions of themselves that don’t include people of color. So it’s not hard to understand why there’s this constant racism when they have no history of black people in their lives.”

Returning to the studio, Williams began a series of paintings featuring a black superhero, clad in yellow tights and an American flag for a cape, who photographed acts of racial violence and brought vengeance to its perpetrators. Then, Williams began to focus his attention on black incarceration, producing the paintings in the current show. Though lacking any crime-fighting central figure, these large-scale works exhibit the same explosive energy and audacious color as any classic comic book page. At the same time, they deftly incorporate the visual vocabulary of modernist painting — Mondrian’s lines over here, Jasper Johns’ target over there, and swatches of pointillism throughout.

While Williams’ dynamic commingling of comic book characters and fine art forms is ebullient and powerful, it also serves a more strategic purpose.

“Most people don’t have any kind of dialog with the work of 500 years ago or even 100 years ago,” Williams said. “So I’m trying to talk in the language that’s available to most people. We live in a comic universe right now. I’m trying to be subversive by saying underneath all this humor is something we’d better start paying attention to. And I’m using the signs and symbols and signifiers that I learned from the Western tradition of oil painting.”

This investigation of the political through a painterly lens is of particular interest to the show’s curator, Chris Reitz.

“What does it mean to make art from a position in which there’s a real urgency to explore politics? Can you do that while also exploring, and even celebrating, your medium?” Reitz asked. “I think what Peter Williams does really well is, he manages to be a painter’s painter: to make beautifully painted things that are in conversation with other painters, while also maintaining that kind of political engagement that he feels is so urgent to do.”

In the painting “Detroit,” Williams overlays a grid of tightly cropped portraits of victims of police violence with a pointillist target, offering a startling new interpretation of Jasper Johns’ famous motif from an African American perspective. Once a way for modernist painters to organize space, the minimalist grid takes on a different function in “Incarceration, New Nation!,” where it serves as prison bars to contain the canvas’ characters; by employing even smaller squares, Williams makes a visual play on the idea of how victims are “framed.”

This containment becomes claustrophobic in “Voyage, Then and Now,” as black bodies are crammed into tiny squares on a gigantic ship that conflates the harrowing Middle Passage of the slave trade with contemporary modes of enslavement, such as the sometimes brutal working conditions for the mostly black and immigrant populations who serve the wealthier passengers on modern-day cruise ships. That Williams renders it all with bright hues and comic gestures makes his portrayal all the more unsettling.

But perhaps the most powerful juxtaposition of the show is the hanging of one of Williams’ more realist works, “#137,” next to one of his most lyrical, “Jailbirds Rock.” The former depicts the shattered, bloodied and bullet-ridden windshield of the car where Cleveland police fired 137 shots at an unarmed, homeless black couple, Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. Williams’ palette is unusually and starkly limited to shades of blue, red and white; there are no goofy grins, no exaggerated expressions and certainly no superheroes intervening to save the day.

To its right, “Jailbirds Rock” glows with color. From its golden yellow background, the green and brown uniforms of laboring inmates, and the orange thorn branches that fence them in, Williams skillfully employs form and rhythm to express anger and frustration at the systemic racism that accompanies contemporary mass incarceration.  Perched in the foreground, a bird with kaleidoscopic plumage stares sternly outward, a sentry that also represents a new class of victim, the billions of birds and other species that are being eradicated by climate change and other forms of environmental destruction. “Jailbirds Rock” draws attention to the underlying malaise that ties these two issues together, namely contemporary capitalism’s concern with profit at any cost.

“If nothing else,” Williams says, “I wanted the black community to begin to respond to the idea that an African American could make complex imagery that has some meaning for them, and was representing things that had the edge of truth, if not truth in and of itself.”

His show at the Cressman does more than that, expressing not only the realities of the black experience, but also the broader truths of human existence, in all its joyous, shocking, humorous and heartbreaking complexity.

“Peter Williams: Incarceration” is on view at the Cressman Center for the Visual Arts until March 21, 2020. The Cressman Center is located at 100 E. Main St. and open Wednesday - Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.