Nicholas Williams is a painter who is developing a singularly stylistic brand of highly detailed, popular culture and biographically influenced (art) history paintings. The narratives are particular yet abstract. It is easy to recognize a shape, emblem, motif, or scenario within their surfaces but this recognition is often instantly lost in the transmitted TV-fuzz of numerous others.
I have been following Williams’ career for a number of years now and have come to approach them as games or puzzles. Re-arrangeable and often willfully un-solvable in terms of my understanding. The hardest Sudoku or Logic problem in Puzzler magazine.
I went to speak to Williams about his work at his studio in BV Studio’s, Bristol. Although the public spaces are stark white, fluorescently lit, empty feeling and institutional looking (it’s hard to imagine walking around that over 100 people have their studio’s here). The individual studios are cozier with most housing around four or five artists. Williams’ space was relatively busy on the day I visited so after a quick rummage through Williams stacked back-catalogue of paintings we de-camped to a coffee shop around the corner to talk about his work.
Williams studied at Liverpool John Moore’s University and then The Hull School of Art. Strangely, both these institutions shut up shop on the Fine Art courses the year Williams graduated. Nothing to do with him I hoped. Initially he used photography as a way into painting, ‘collecting’ the natural landscapes and cityscapes around him. Industrial landscapes have, it seems, been the most influential. He says: “Hull was a really fascinating place in terms of the buildings and landscape and industry. I would just walk around taking photographs of all sorts of strange things. It was my immediate surroundings that were influential to me, empty buildings, disused warehouses; I could just pull boards up off the floor and paint on them. It felt like a fresh start for me”
After moving to Liverpool, Williams moved to various studios, again set up in the disused warehouses and buildings that proliferate in Liverpool City Centre. First came The Royal Standard (then situated in an old pub in Toxteth) where his studio was in the basement. “Mold coming off the walls and I had to bend over to actually get into the space,” he remembers. “It was so grim I worked quickly to get the hell out of there”.
Next was a disused clothes manufacturing building in Wolstenholme Square, next to Cream nightclub and the raucous Pleasure Rooms. Here Williams began to use found imagery of natural and unusual phenomenon from magazines like National Geographic, collaged and pasted into his paintings. “The question of how you start a painting is always important to me, how does something begin? With these paintings I decided to start with a found image and then react to it with the painting. Improvisation has always been a key thing for my work”. Sometimes this collaged starting point is, in fact, completely obliterated by the paint. These paintings from Williams show fundamentally his interest in showing the process of painting as well as making a painting. The logic of the thing is revealed.
These paintings culminated in an exhibition at Wolstenholme Projects. Stacked and hung together, they become an installation not individual works, almost wallpapering the space. This was yet another example of how the space of production influenced the finished article but in this case, also the display of the finished articles. He recalls: “My studio space happened to be right in the middle of the studios in a large corridor-like space between studios and the stairwell. I constructed this installation where I normally worked. The size was determined by the wall parameters. It worked out really well for me. It was seen by a lot of people because of its location and there were lots of discussions I had with people about them because of that.”
Williams then moved from Wolstenholme Projects to newly re-furbished studios at The Bluecoat. “Initially there was quite a buzz about the whole thing. People were getting quite excited. A lot of artists wanted to get studio’s there,” he says “In the beginning it was great, good atmosphere…a lot of talent in the building. We started putting on our own shows, The Bluecoat let us use their old Barbershop space at the front of the building and that became a project space for a new exhibition programme.”
Some of my favorites of Williams work are the abstract densely colored paintings that I saw in the exhibition, Dark Paintings, part of the Independents programme of Liverpool Biennial 2010. The abstracted forms were based on drawings of machinery and industrial processes. Drawn from programmes like How It’s Made on The Discovery Channel combined with techniques such as marbling, masking or stenciling. The shapes and colors seem to pop from the canvas and create mini worlds of electro-dancing, half-animal, half-machine shape-shifters. A metal disk becomes a spinning pancake; an air-vent funnel becomes a duck squawking and honking at a mining drill. The paint used is expensive high pigment Lascaux Acrylic, left over from a Sol LeWitt painted installation Williams had been working on at Tate Liverpool. Recalling the piece, he says: “For that LeWitt installation, the paint was just so full-on and sickly, it was unbelievable and the installation was so huge, we spend weeks making it. By the end of it all, the techniques we used and the colors obviously were stuck firmly in my mind.”
Williams worked for five years as a technician at Tate Liverpool and now at the UWE studios at Spike Island, Bristol. Technician work has both been a financial necessity for the production of his work but is also influential in other ways. I asked him if it was important to have a job that had a relationship with his artistic practice. He replies: “I’ve got an obsessive personality I think so for me to be able to work with my obsession (art) in a different capacity is, I’d like to say essential, but I just wouldn’t be able to sustain any interest if it wasn’t related.”
For some time Williams was considering why the forms in his paintings during this period were so flat. He began to experiment with ideas of shadow, which is the absent element. This led him onto making sculptural shadow sculptures that would sit in front of certain works. Perhaps the sculptures themselves became the work and the paintings behind acted as the shadow? He says: “I was trying to make a 3D shadow almost, but make it outside of the actual painted surface. I wanted to reject the idea of having a shadow to deal with it in a more head on way.”
The forms in these works also become more recognizable as creatures or figures rather than purely mechanical, as Williams explains: “I was looking at a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth called People Waiting (1952). Looking at that, something just clicked. These mechanical forms, parts of machines become alive in a sense and become people. It sounds a bit corny but they seem to have a kind of consciousness.” These mini-sculptural forms recall monuments, like shrunken Easter Island stones. There is a kitsch conversation going on between real and replica and depiction of replica and maquette on a plinth of depiction of replica.
“It’s supposed to ask the question to the viewer of which of them came first, what order were they made in?” he explains. “Actually the sculpture was made first based on some drawings and the sculpture was the basis for the painting. Except the sculpture initially had no color, it was just wood and then I painted the sculpture based on how I had used color in the painting.”
I asked Williams about the subject matter of his most recent paintings and where his influences are coming from. : “I’m referencing art and the history of art a lot more now in the work and also in the titles.” He explains “It’s important to me as I don’t want my work to be about any specific subject outside of art. I think if you are so interested in politics, go and be a politician. I’m an artist and I think it’s legitimate that the main subject of my work is painting and art. The history of painting is also a great resource. I have a folder on my computer where I keep images of a few hundred of my favorite paintings that I use all the time. I’ll dip into it to get inspiration. Sometimes I take parts from other works, a form from one, a background or a sky from another and just piece it all together.”
Looking at individual works, I asked him to be specific. “If you take this work, The Triumph of Joy (2011), the composition is from Matisse’s Joy of Life (1905-6) and the ring of dancers in The Dance (1909). Then, the background is from Breugel – The Triumph of Death (1562) and then the whole thing comes together as The Triumph of Joy (2011).”
The figures come from sketches made of rock guitarists that Williams makes by drawing straight from videos on YouTube “They become a bit distorted when you pause the image and I draw them like that,” he says “I think the idea of the guitarist and the idea of the painter have a lot in common. They both have a basic structure to work with and then comes the improvisation. If you look at Triumph of Joy (2011) (above) this figure over here is a guitarist called Mick Mars from Motley Crue… he’s not actually fat in real life but he has, again, become distorted…..this one is John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers …this one is Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue.
“The figures or the people are just so much more powerful than the machines. In this painting, Out on the Marbles (2011), above the main figure is Tiger Woods after his adultery situation. I drew him at the time he was playing his first golf tournament after the scandal. He was losing and just looking totally dejected; I distorted it to emphasis how dejected he looked. It’s not important that people really know that that is Tiger Woods I’m painting. People don’t know until I say and it’s not mentioned in the title. I would rather they get a sense of the mood of the figure, in the case of Woods, a sense of desperation or dejection whilst trying to achieve something in his career. He was trying to win but there was obviously so many other things going on.”
Looking at another recent work, You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down (2011) the landscape appears to become as important as the figures he had been painting for the first time. He recognises the development, responding: “Yes. I had been drawing the figures in first with some of the initial works. So the landscape came later and you can see that in the scale of the figures, there’s no perspective, they are all the same size. In this later one, the scale of the figures changes in accordance to the landscape they’re in. I’m going back to a more traditional approach I think. You just have to go back to the original to see all the elements that I have used from the Bosch work. Some of the forms I have taken from some of the other Bosch panels as well. I’m using smaller brushes on this work, it’s a far more involved process than I’ve previously used.”
Williams can sound romantic when he talks about his work. Painting, for him, is the grand love affair. When I asked him if it is important to him that his paintings are seen as ‘unique’ or ‘interesting’ he responds: “Yes. Absolutely. The paintings have to be something you haven’t seen before, unique, original, with their own style. It is a mission or a search…a journey….you’re constantly searching and you know you’re never going to reach the end.”
Words: Sacha Waldron.
Images (from top):
1) The Lark Ascending, 2012
2) Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some, 2011
3) Samuel Barber, 2012
4) Out on the marbles, 2011
5) Triumph of Joy, 2011
6) You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down, 2011
Info: Nick Williams lives and works in Bristol, UK and is represented by Mermaid and Monster, Cardiff. His work can be seen at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff until Sunday 20th May 2012.
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