Ryan and I are still dry-docked in Raleigh after discovering (on a test run at the beautiful Falls Lake State Park) that our beloved RV, Tidepool, needed some maintenance on her plumbing systems before we hit the road. So while we are still waiting to take off, I took the opportunity to interview some more local artists here in the Triangle area, and I discovered an artist who has a bold vision and an authentic Southern voice, an artist who doesn’t mind letting his roots show.
I visited the studio of the Durham based artist Antoine Williams, who has created his most recent body of work as a fascinating mixed-media exploration of the intersections between class, race, and geography. His paintings and installations breathe life into a whole pantheon of powerful hybrid figures that represent the richness and complexity of the Southern black male experience.
Williams greets me with a warm smile when I knock on his studios sliding door. He invites me inside and I am overwhelmed by the creative energy that hits me from all sides- there are paintings on every wall- both finished and unfinished- and the floor is littered with supplies and experiments. It is pure expressive chaos, and it happily reminds me of my own studio practice.
Walking into his studio, it becomes obvious that Williams has developed an entire world within his work, a mind-space populated by countless human-animal hybrids. Like visions of spirits or nature gods, these human-animal forms jump out at the viewer with a mysterious totemic significance. A further study of these figures reveals the human halves to be wearing clothing and accessories associated with a popularized version of the black male aesthetic- they sport sagging jeans, basketball shorts, and hoodies, all symbols of the black male cultural identity.
I ask Williams about these hybrid figures as we sit down across from each other in camp chairs in the center of his studio. He explains the purpose and meaning of the human/animal hybrids and in the process he tells me about his upbringing in a mostly black working-class North Carolina town. The hybrid figures, he tells me, represent the people and mindsets he grew up with as told through the animal portions of the figures.
Upon first viewing, the animal halves of these hybrids would seem to represent nature, but that would be a facile reading. Instead, the animal portions reflect the psyche of the subject as he navigates the unique challenges of the Southern “urban jungle”, a land of poverty and economic inequality, where the ghosts of slavery and segregation still linger. To exist in such a place requires strength, persistence, and adaption, qualities that Williams’ hybrids display with an unapologetic boldness.
Williams’ work is particularly interesting in how it deals with sense of place. The images themselves, transferred collages of the artist’s own drawings combined with animal imagery, float untethered in a plane of paint and texture, with no spatial clues to give the viewer a sense of where these figures are. Instead, the substrate itself- painted and collaged, then sanded down and painted again in a labor-intensive process (that the artist says evokes for him the blue-collar jobs of his parents)- begins to resemble a battle weary wall that the figures are pasted on top of, like graffiti. This surface, and the history of its creation, become just as important to the meaning of the works as the figures themselves, as it evokes the architecture found in impoverished communities both urban and rural, communities similar to the artist’s own hometown and the city where he now keeps his studio practice.
But these images do not solely exist in the context of the Southern black experience, they dwell in the greater collective subconscious as well, haunting us with their refusal to be easily interpreted. To use the theme of “an image on a ruined wall” in a different way, these paintings reference the art of the ancients, from the caves of Lascaux to the Roman murals on the walls in Pompeii. The viewer feels like an archaeologist, discovering these depictions of powerful and mysterious hybrid beings, and one can’t help but assume that they are spirits, and quite possibly gods.
The “wall as a substrate” is explored by Williams in a different way in his gallery installations. In these works Williams uses wheat-paste graffiti in a fresh and exciting way. On the gallery wall he pastes up hybrid figures, but this time they are doubly hybrid- they are half human and half found object assemblage, they are half two-dimensional and half three-dimensional. Williams’ masterful black and white line-work plays against the assemblage elements in a way that feels natural, here he accomplishes a difficult feat- he successfully marries sculpture and image.
What does this hybridity mean? In these installations Williams has chosen found objects that appear to be trash. They are objects, like plastic bags and fake fruit, electrical cords and artificial flowers, that were made to be used and tossed away. Here he has salvaged these objects and has chosen to relate them to a two-dimensional image of a black male body- what is he saying about disposeability, about race, about the nature of the real?
These installation pieces, like the paintings, are complicated, enigmatic. They refuse to provide any easy answers. They are defiant, yet delicate. Bold, yet precise. Like the wrinkles in the plastic bags, these pieces offer a record- a record of the psyche, a record of the lived experience. And that combination of nebulous meaning with honest feeling is the very secret of their success.
In Williams’ studio there is something new to be discovered in every multi-layered, textual piece. I was given the opportunity to get close to this artist’s work and to get a glimpse into his art making process. And the entire time the artist was open and generous, sharing his stories, anecdotes, and inspirations. By the end of our interview I felt I understood this mysterious art work (and its creator) much better, and I was very glad that I took the time to delve into Antoine Williams’ artistic world.
The work of Antoine Williams is many things- it is bold and textural, mysterious, beautiful, and laden with layered meaning about race and identity. But the word I keep returning to over and over again is powerful. This work is powerful. These pieces may not shout. But when they speak, you listen.
Antoine Williams lives in Chaple Hill and works in Durham. Please check out more of his powerful artwork at his website: http://www.rawgoods.org. His studio is at the Goldenbelt complex in Durham, goldenbeltarts.com.