Detail of George Floyd Triptych (2020) by Peter Williams

 

IN EARLY AUGUST, artist Peter Williams presented The George Floyd Triptych (2020), at Untitled, Art Online, the art fair’s inaugural virtual event. The work, which depicts the arrest, death, and burial of Floyd in three panels, was the central focus of the Luis De Jesus Los Angeles virtual booth. Untitled, Art hosted a Zoom conversation with Williams and critic John Yau. The two discussed the paintings and the artist’s lengthy career.

Yau asked about his use of “outrageous color” throughout his practice and Williams explained that in the triptych, in particular, he invoked 1960s modernism, the stripes of Frank Stella, the Washington Color School, and presented the images in a comic, poster style to make them more accessible to viewers.

“In a way, as I tracked through that story, it really resonated with me. When I saw the film, I was aghast and in shock. For hours after that, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that something like this was so prevalent, that people just stood there and watched him die and even I just stood there and watched him die,” Williams said, “and that sort of spurred me on to making the center panel, which was about the death of George Floyd and how he was kneeled on and the police officer had his hand in his pocket and gazed about as if it were an everyday occurrence. And of course, it is as we now sort of see more and more of these images being repeated in the media.”

By turns a visual storyteller and cultural critic, Williams explores the experiences of Black people in America, both autobiographically and more universally, through historic and contemporary events. His decision to document Floyd’s death reflects the focus of his longstanding practice. For more than four decades, his subjects have included slavery, lynching, mass incarceration, and police brutality.

In recent years, Williams made a series of paintings about Black Women of the Black Power Revolution (both “fierce figures” and “movie queens”) showing the likes of Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, and Pam Grier holding firearms. Ferguson, Mo., and Colin Kaepernick have been subjects. Another series, How to Make a Brutalist Painting, uses an art and architectural reference to title a group of tightly framed cartoonish images of police brutalizing Black men.

Throughout his work, Williams employs bold color and comic-style characters designed to blunt the sharp edges of the material he tackles. Text-based cultural references make plain in his paintings what often goes unspoken in real life. On occasion, his scenes unfold in otherworldly realms, another strategy meant to balance the soul-crushing reality of America’s past and present record on racial violence and criminal injustice. The artist has also found humor to be a reliable tool on this front. Among many examples of this approach, he created a Black superhero and named him “The N Word.”

“Peter has remained steadfast to his practice as both a painter and an educator. His work has continued to evolve with all the potency and brilliance that one would expect given his longevity in the field. It is a much-deserved acknowledgment of his artistic virtuosity!” — Valerie Cassel Oliver

Recently retired from the University of Delaware, his work is currently on view in solo exhibitions in Los Angeles and Detroit and, this week, Williams received the Artists’ Legacy Foundation 2020 Artist Award. Howardena Pindell was recognized with the award in 2019.

“I am deeply honored to be a recipient of this distinguished award,” Williams said in a statement. He added the award is “the validation of 40 years of work, representing People of Color in my art…my interest in Black culture stretches back to Africa and its culture, to Afro-futurism in my latest body of work.”

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver was a member of the jury panel for the award. In a statement she said, “It is gratifying to honor the work of artists like Peter Williams. Peter has remained steadfast to his practice as both a painter and an educator. His work has continued to evolve with all the potency and brilliance that one would expect given his longevity in the field. It is a much-deserved acknowledgment of his artistic virtuosity!”

 


Peter Williams is the recipient of the Artists’ Legacy Foundation 2020 Artist Award. He currently has exhibitions on view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and Trinosophes in Detroit. | Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


Installation view of PETER WILLIAMS, George Floyd Triptych, 2020 (oil on canvas). Shown, from left, “The Arrest of George Floyd,” “The Death of George Floyd,” and “The Burial of George Floyd.” | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 

FOR THE UNTITLED, ART CONVERSATION with Yau, Williams wore a black graphic t-shirt that read “History of the U.S. Presidents” and featured a row of generic emojis. A succession of white faces with balding heads was abruptly followed by the brown face of a Black man with a full head of hair. Next came a clown face.

A career educator, Williams maintained his practice in parallel with 17 years on the faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and 15 years at the University of Delaware, where he was a senior professor in the Fine Arts Department.

Williams noted the differences in the “street wise” students he taught in Detroit and the more “sheltered,” upper middle class students he encountered in Newark, Del. The stark contrast meant he had to adjust how he performed his job as an instructor. He thought long and hard about how he presented information and how it was received, an exercise that has influenced his painting when he considers how various audiences might access his work and understand his subject matter.

It’s been an unsettling spring and summer. Williams has kept busy painting, preparing to show his work, and engaging in conversations about his practice.

In addition to Yau, he spoke to Chris Reitz, director of the Cressman Center for Visual Arts at the University of Louisville, where “Peter Williams: Incarceration” was on view in February and March. In April, Williams and Reitz hosted a virtual tour and conversation about the exhibition.

The show is about literal and symbolic incarceration, both the prison system and the corporate world, for example. The emphasis is on Williams’s engagement with art history, abstraction, and a flirtation with modernism. His explorations of politics, the Middle Passage, and mass incarceration serve as an entry point for “investigating radical painterly invention” and seeking “new modes of representation.”

Introducing himself, Williams recited his teaching background and said “I’ve been painting all my life.” In response, Reitz said: “When I was looking at your body of work, there is really no way to account for the variety and the complexity of it. This show is really just brand new stuff. It’s not a retrospective. I would say new work by Peter Williams on the theme of incarceration.”

The artist agreed. One of the paintings that anchors the show illustrates the cross section of a huge boat Williams intends as both a slave ship and a cruise ship. He uses a grid to create compartments featuring a spectrum of figures and activities. The painting is called “Voyage Then and Now” (2019).

Williams explained how the concept for the show came about and how the themes of history, travel, and the grid tie the works together.

“Off and on over the years, I have wondered about the notion of incarceration as the numbers started to pile into the millions and it just seemed incapable that one could incarcerate that many people. And then Michelle Alexander wrote a fantastic piece on mass incarceration and talked about how it was, I guess we are repeating ourselves,” Williams said.

“Reconstruction and Jim Crow and so forth came back. The civil rights, post-Black, all these names for something that has not ended. And so I wanted to begin to talk about that in relationship to travel, in relationship to not just the past, but the present. This idea about incarceration was something that structurally, because my work has been paying attention to the grid as a formalism, easily fit into a kind of idea that has repeated itself, time and time again, in my work.”

“This idea about incarceration was something that structurally, because my work has been paying attention to the grid as a formalism, easily fit into a kind of idea that has repeated itself, time and time again, in my work.”
— Peter Williams


PETER WILLIAMS, “Voyage Then and Now,” 2019 (oil based enamel and pencil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “He Was a Global Traveler,” 2020 (oil and graphite on canvas, 72 x 96 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 

FOLLOWING THE LOUISVILLE EXHIBITION and the Untitled, Art presentation, the artist’s work is being presented at three venues. “Peter Williams: Black Universe” is on view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Works from his Black Universe series are also being shown concurrently at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Trinosophes, an alternative space in Detroit.

Introducing the exhibition, the gallery describes the Black Universe series as “an Afrofuturist tale of a brown-skinned race that escapes to outer space in search of new planet homes and an end to the cycles of oppression from which they have been subjected.”

When Reitz asked about the Black Universe series, Williams said: “It started out with my decision to leave the planet and the way to do that would be to take my 12-year-old car down to Cuba and have them retrofit it and put on some rockets and stuff.”

In the conversation with Yau, Williams explored an array of topics. He spoke about the content of his paintings, explained in great detail the many references and signifiers in each of the George Floyd panels, and how his own experiences are expressed in his work.

Early on, Yau took the opportunity to further explore the role of color in the artist’s work. “Well, let’s talk about your color. It’s pretty outrageous,” Yau said.

“Before I was in Detroit, I was in Baltimore and I had a chance to go into or live inside the city itself, both cities, and they were not on the simple side. They were complex,” Williams explained.

“The colors that people wore. The suits and clothes that women wore on weekends to go to church. Posters for the nightclubs and so forth that were around, or available, all had a certain kind of sophistication. Even though they were crudely made, you could look at a nightclub and know that what was going on was what the card revealed. And I kind of like that accessibility.… So I would concentrate more on form in my teaching and let the content come out in a critique and that’s what’s happening here with the color.”

The artist continued: “It’s a formal kind of saying, ‘Here, this is part of my Negritude, part of the Negrosity that I have in my soul.’ I don’t live in the inner city anymore because I am too old for that kind of entertainment and veracity. But, if I can, in my own paintings, make a kind of painting that talks to a younger crowd that’s versed in cartoons and comic books and the kinds of everyday detritus and so forth that explodes upon the scene, then I’ve got them as an audience and I can begin to lay down some ideals and maybe some morals within that.”

“If I can, in my own paintings, make a kind of painting that talks to a younger crowd that’s versed in cartoons and comic books and the kinds of everyday detritus and so forth that explodes upon the scene, then I’ve got them as an audience and I can begin to lay down some ideals and maybe some morals within that.” — Peter Williams


PETER WILLIAMS, “How to Make a Brutalist Painting V,” 2017 (acrylic on canvas, 30 x 20 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, Detroit News,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 

Yau asked about his process, noting that Williams doesn’t make preparatory drawings. He works everything out directly on the canvas. Over the years, it was about time constraints, balancing his time in the studio with teaching and preparing for his classes. Williams said he paints “so fast and so swiftly” on the surface of the paintings “to get at the meaning as quickly as I can, while it’s still in my head and in my frame of reference.”

He continued: “How my body feels about it. How I feel about the resistance that I am constantly confronting, either as a handicapped man or as a Black man. I am not overwhelmed by either of them, but I am aware of them as I become older. What was a slap in the face then, now becomes a real slap in the face because I understand what it means. I didn’t always get that as I go on with the development of the idea and the painting.”

THERE WERE A FEW QUESTIONS from the virtual audience. Someone asked whether Williams thinks about the life of his work after he creates it. Whether he relinquishes control of his paintings once he completes them.

Williams said: “I relinquish it in the sense that possession is nine-tenths of the law, but meaning is still the thing that I am capturing in that painting and I own that until the painting doesn’t exist. As far as I’m concerned, any kind of involvement that the painting has post my studio, I am willing to sort of cede some of that information to the viewer and the possessor of that information because it’s telling their story, as well. Hopefully. They are seeing their relationship either as a Black person, or to Black people, or their relationship to death or meaningfulness or authority in some kind of balance or counterbalance, counterweight to the way the world is operating right now.”

These are indeed trying times with the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic, police killings and racial justice protests, and the looming U.S. Presidential election, a contentious contest variously described as the most important Presidential election in our lifetimes or the most consequential in the nation’s history. Williams emphasized that the contemporary moment is a historic one.

“I think we are at a moment in history and not something we should casually dismiss,” the artist said. “All of the violence and all of the vile and hateful stuff that’s going on, I think we have to bear witness to it. And that owner of the painting who takes possession of it, is taking possession of bearing witness as well. Because that meaning may provide them with access to their own interior struggle or insight about themselves.”

“I think we are at a moment in history and not something we should casually dismiss. All of the violence and all of the vile and hateful stuff that’s going on, I think we have to bear witness to it.” — Peter Williams


PETER WILLIAMS, “Birdland,” 2020 (oil and graphite on canvas, 60 x 72 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “On the Way,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 

Another online question was put forward. The person asked simply, “Joe Overstreet?” Williams gave a full-throttled answer to this one, too.

“There are sources for work that exist and while I wouldn’t name Joe Overstreet as an immediate reference, but certainly someone I’ve looked at in part because of the modernity that he plays with in his paintings, in his tight-like works and so forth,” Williams said.

“I am almost always razzle-dazzled by modernity, until I start to think about it. When I start to think about it, I have more questions than I get answers and that’s why I stay so succinctly away from it, holistically. I might toy with it, you know to sort of play out a little time that I have on something. And Joe Overstreet is an important and impressive African American painter and certainly he should have some impact on me. Thank you for bringing that up.”

Later, Yau made an observation that gave the artist the opportunity to make a profound statement, connecting the experiences of Black people in general, with his own biography, and the respect he believes the medium of painting deserves. Yau said that in composing his paintings, Williams often puts things together in a “jarring” and “disquieting” manner.

In response, Williams said: “That’s the whole way Black people live their lives everyday. In college, my roommate drove us off a cliff. He broke his jaw. I lost a leg. Spent seven months in the hospital recuperating. There’s nothing about it that made any kind of sense, at least to me as a kid. The struggle to go forward or move ahead has been a journey filled with lots of inopportune moments. Things that come along that I can’t really deal with either because they can’t accept the fact that I’m coming from another culture or I’m too handicapped to deal with the situation. So time gets stretched out. Time gets stretched out almost to infinity in some of this.”

He continued: “When I get to a painting like this (George Floyd), there is so many levels that I am becoming aware of as the painting is unfolding that I somehow have to be able to resonate, through ideas that deal with just the formal apprehension of ideas about repetition or form making or tone or value. Color is meant to sort of jar the viewer. I am making these to get people to stop and look. Painting is so devalued these days and I can’t have that. I need to make sure that if they are not into what I am about, they at least know what I am about in that painting.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: PETER WILLIAMS, “The Death of George Floyd,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 

“Peter Williams: Black Universe” is on view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, July 9-Oct. 10, 2020; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, July 2, 2020-Jan 10, 2021; and Trinosophes in Detroit, July 2, 2020-Jan. 10, 2021. The Detroit exhibitions are guest curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Rebecca Mazzei

Celebrating the Artists’ Legacy Foundation 2020 Artist Award, Peter Williams will be in conversation with Jordana Moore Saggese on Oct. 22, 2020, at 7 p.m. EST

 

FIND MORE about Peter Williams on his website

READ MORE about Peter Williams in the Detroit Metro Times

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “The Arrest of George Floyd,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Peter Williams: Black Universe,” Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Shown, from left, “DNA” (2020) and “Mortal Ice” (2019). | Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “Mortal Ice,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “How to Make a Great Picture,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “Adam and Tanisha,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Peter Williams: Black Universe,” Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Shown, “Birdland” 2020 (oil and graphite on canvas, 60 x 72 inches). | Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “All That Jazz,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Peter Williams: Black Universe,” Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Shown, from left, “On the Way” (2019) and “All That Jazz” (2019). | Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “Flowers I,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “Blue Flowers,” 2020 (oil and graphite on canvas, 60 x 72 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “Control Room,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Peter Williams: Black Universe,” Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Shown, Shown, “Wild Bill and His Cosmic Ride,” 2020 (oil on canvas, 36 x 96 inches). | Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 


PETER WILLIAMS, “Black Peoples Oil,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches). | © Peter Williams, Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

 

BOOKSHELF
“The N-Word Paintings by Peter Williams” was published by Rotland Press in Detroit. “Dark Humor: Joyce J. Scott & Peter Williams” documents a two-artist exhibition with Peter Williams and Joyce J. Scott, the Baltimore bead artist, at the Center for the Arts Gallery at Towson University. Williams cited “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Elizabeth Alexander, as a text that informed his thinking when he embarked on making the paintings presented in his “Incarceration” exhibition at Cressman Center for Visual Arts at the University of Louisville.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is a solo editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.