Nostalgia is a powerful, heady force in Baltimore artist James Williams II’s work.
Williams’ exhibition “In the Wilderness” at UTA Artist Space is a kind of sense memory of the past. It’s a collective past where movies, music and video games, childhood crafts and activities mix up with Williams’ personal memories of trauma and fear, love and hope.
Williams, 41, taps into the pop culture touchstones and anecdotal experiences that define him, from the John Singleton film “Boyz n the Hood” that proved particularly impactful to Williams as a kid, to the video game Street Fighter played on a sticker-decorated TV. Several of the stories in “In the Wilderness” unfold on faux-television sets rendered in wood and finished with a patina of grime and age.
The artist has said “In the Wilderness” is a reckoning with discrimination, a primer for his young daughter to help explain racism. The most telling detail may be how absent Williams is from his own story, a shadowy figure in his paintings’ foreground, a set of disembodied eyes or a body without a head.
Though painterly swaths of neon green foliage, startlingly red roses and blue ocean pop up in the show, the wilderness Williams references feels metaphoric. Williams’ wilderness suggests a lack of footing or comprehension along a landmine-rigged journey from childhood to adulthood that attends a young Black man’s bildungsroman.
A brutal undercurrent attends many of the images. Though the blue graduation gown and canvas sprinkled with Velcroed bits of confetti in “Victory Lap” signal the joy of that particular passage, Williams offers clues that things are a little more complicated. On a vintage TV in the painting’s foreground, the O.J. Simpson highway chase is in progress and the graduate’s head is cut-off. The idea of a disembodied consciousness, where one is body alone and not intellect or soul comes through in an image that dramatically conveys the troubled waters of this tainted moment.
In “Red, White and Blue,” Williams blends the familiar and the strange in unnerving juxtaposition. Playing with perspective to destabilizing effect, Williams creates a distorted vision of a traumatic incident, mixing realism and stylization. At the center of the painting, nervous cartoon-style eyeballs are reflected in a rearview mirror and the banal landscape of a suburban street is bathed in the red and blue glow of police car lights. In the distance, a single light is on in a neighbor’s window, suggesting someone awakened by the events on the street outside. Williams uses ordinary, crafty materials like latch hook rugs, puzzle-like wooden cutouts, and the kind of Velcro stuck to flannel reminiscent of elementary school classrooms to tell this and other stories in “In the Wilderness.”
Those crafty elements incorporated into Williams’ paintings are powerful evocations of the past, luring you into the comfort of nostalgia and the familiar even as scenes of real or suggested violence hint at more troubling storylines.
“In the Wilderness” is an intensely evocative but imperfect endeavor. Very much about audience and looking, the works are beautifully constructed to tease out a relationship between story and viewer. Sculptural, wood panels in the shape of foliage or faces fan out in his paintings’ foreground to reference a theatrical proscenium. Williams is engaged in the act of storytelling, using all of the props at his disposal. But it’s an often oblique and complicated tale, full of symbols and ciphers and we can glean insights but also feel lost in the telling. Williams is not an unreliable narrator but simply one having trouble, for good reason, telling his story as he grapples with a powerful sense of erasure.
VISUAL ARTS REVIEW
“James Williams II: In the Wilderness”
Through Aug. 12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Free. UTA Artist Space, 1401 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta. 336-317-4656, utaartistspace.com.
Bottom line: James William II’s solo exhibition is a nostalgia-laden, expertly constructed vision of the past and the artist’s complex place within it.