For artist Sue Williams, the body always takes primacy. The painter, who began her career during the 1990’s, has long tweaked and twisted the female form, pushing it and painting it into any number of surreal arrangements. Multiplying that practice over any number of permutations, her canvases eventually arrive at a breathless final product containing massive flurries of activities and bodies, simultaneously personal and sexual, and often underscoring distinct facets of the hyper-mediated experience of modern life. Taking a retrospective angle on Williams’s work this month, Skarstedt Gallery in New York is currently presenting a body of paintings from 1997 and 1998, formative years in Williams’s body of work, and striking introductions to a practice that has only continued to evolve and develop over the following 20 years.
For fans of Williams, who also shows nearby at 303 Gallery, the exhibition is striking look back at her work, and a chance to reflect on the stylistic interests that ultimately inform her practice. Long, loping brushstrokes, rendered almost effortlessly on the canvas, find themselves gradually intertwining, built up into clusters of human and non-human forms before the mass eventually dissipates or collapses under the weight of its own construction. Energy is the essential aspect here, the act of construction and depiction seeking to capture some of the same vitality and raw expression that the human body itself is also capable of.
Contending with these bodily forms are Williams’s free-ranging strokes and marks, gentle curves and spins of the brush that accent and antagonize the rest of her subject matter. In one canvas, Black and White and Red All Over, the serpentine red lines moving across the canvas merge into the body forms depicted, occasionally losing strength as they fade or mingle with more concrete forms and images. In other works, brushstrokes and marks take on increasingly evocative forms as they mingle and repeat on the canvas. Her work Big Red Shoes, for instance, sees a series of repeated gestures eventually taking on the form of human thumbs, fingers and other body parts, just floating on the edge of legibility.
For Williams, the act of painting seems to allow for an endless series of iterations and variations on the human form, a space where the act of depiction itself can hover between image and act. Much in the same way that the act of painting teases the body out from a series of lines and gestures, Williams allows the process to work in reverse. In this early series of works, one gets the opportunity to see these ideas in their first strokes.
— D. Creahan
Sue Williams: Paintings 1997-1998 [Skarstedt]