Kent Williams Review

I first saw the works of the figurative artist Kent Williams last year at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery on La Bra Avenue and was quite taken with his work, especially a painting called “The Mango Lovers” which he did in 1998. On the floor is a nude male on all fours resting his head on a large sofa chair while a raven-haired semi nude female is standing on that chair bending down over him. How does this all relate? Well the male has a basket on his back with two mangos side by side in it and the woman hanging over his back has a pair of human “mangos” that are now hanging down over his mangos; This sort of symbolism is never really lost on me. And therein lies one, there are more, of Williams strengths and hallmark; he juxtaposes elements with his figures along side things that are often incongruous. This can be a dangerous activity and yet, more often than not, he pulls it off to the point where the figures gain not only energy but also added cohesiveness. So a few weeks ago, I get this 11”x 15” poster of a female profile so tantalizing that even King Tantalus would grave for her, advertising Kent Williams latest paintings at the Karnowsky Gallery. Then and there I carried out my resolution to see his new creations. Before even clearing past the front desk, I develop a question (which of course I now forgot) and, seeing a guy standing around like he’s part of the staff and having hopes that he could answer my question, I asked him if he belongs; Turns out it’s the artist himself, bingo! Now I have a primary source. At the same time I see a portrait of Rajiv, a well-known male art model and rather accomplished figurative artist. I photographed Rajiv (the whole professional photographer bit with strobes, power packs and all) in an immense studio space quite a number of years ago when I did exclusively art photography. I talked a lot in French with him since one of his parents was from France, the other being from India. Now every time I see his portrait I tell everyone around, Kent Williams was no exception, a story about my shoot with Rajiv. Halfway into the session the owner of the studio space came in announcing that they were ticketing cars out in the street. Before I knew it Rajiv ran out of the studio. Now that’s a normal reaction for all of us, the only problem was that Rajiv was naked. I bolted after him shouting, probably in French, “Rajiv, you don’t have any clothes on”. Just before he ran into the street my words made contact and he ran back to put some pants on. My story over I started focusing on Kent Williams. I asked him what medium he uses and was told glazes either straight up or mixed with Gamsol or turpentine. He also mentioned that he sometimes blends things by smearing paint on a dry surface. We talked about the build up of impasto in his backgrounds, his judicial use of drips, his loose next to tight brushwork, and more. I discovered that he teaches courses at Art Center. I discovered that he comes out of his studio from time to time to check if his lungs can still take in oxygen and his eyes absorb sun light; he has devoted eleven months to creating the body of work now displayed before me. Such behavior is symptomatic of an artist with “gestaltungstreb”, a need to create. We went over to a 46” x 52” painting titled “Clay Medusa” which showed the following: a very self confidently aloof thin gothic girl sitting and wearing garter belt, short dress, stripped stockings, large gauge ear cartilage (a large ring fitting in a big slit in the earlobe), two nostril rings and white streamers cascading down her hair quite medusa like.  Behind her, at some distance, is a sitting nude male with long hair looking sad and dazed. Now I told you he places incongruous objects with his figures, so it’s no surprise to see two stylized “The Day of the Dead” Mexican sword wielding skeletons between the female and the male. It was explained to me that this all represented, I’m paraphrasing of course, the death of a love relationship. It shows the indifference of the young female along with the suffering of the young male unable to cut this sexy gothic siren out of his life. Hummm, can anyone relate to this? Trent Williams went on to tell me that much of his work is influenced by his personal experiences.  He usually starts a painting with a single human figure having no particularly fixed notion in mind and lets the rest of the painting’s elements and subjects evolve into the final narration. So at this point I ask him, “Which is your favorite painting, I mean like which one do you feel a sense of satisfaction or at least a sense that you’re on to something new?  He takes me to a relatively small 23” x 24” painting called “Hourglass” the lower portion consisting of a well fitted weathered wooden section, probably part of a discarded wall including chipped paint, cracks and all. This painting shows parts of a well-rendered skull with abstract cool blue and white loose brushstroke washes covering most of it except for sections of the teeth, lower jaw, eye sockets, small part of the skull and nasal cavity. The “Hourglass” painting is still playing with incongruous forms. The skull becomes an effective layer under the brush wash strokes that creates a vibrant undulating in and out motion; your eye has no problem seeing both layers separately or as a unified whole. Instantly I agree with his choice, it would have been mine if I had been by myself. It was the moment where we both realized that we were striving for the same sort of thing in our paintings. Which is?   Finding that area of visual homeostasis where abstracted forms coexist effectively with rendered areas whether attempting something harmonious or discordant.  “Hourglass” is a powerful work and Kent Williams has the good sense to know this. Does it come as any surprise that I recommend a visit to his show?

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