by Gregory Volk
This was a rare opportunity in New York, or in America for that matter, to see recent work by Emmett Williams, one of the foremost Fluxus artists whose varied career has included performances and pioneering concrete poetry as well as paintings and drawings. Williams' exhibition consisted of what he calls "Altered Masterpieces"--reproductions of oftentimes whoppingly famous paintings, with an emphasis on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, to which he added assortments of tiny, colorful, painted figures. Within their art historical contexts, these little congregations of impish, weirdly touching figures seem at once solemn and whimsical, lyrical and bizarre. They invade the sacrosanct scene with their oddball micro-cartoonishness, yet they don't seem at all like a pop-culture raid on high art, and this is a curious thing--on the contrary they seem strangely innocent, somewhat clumsy and awkward, casually elegant, and ultimately deeply humane. Thus, Van Gogh's renowned, deep blue night sky with its pulsating stars and vibrant moon gets filled with a curlicue line of Williams' figures, which take their trajectory from the original painting's turbulent swirls. Doing their hovering line dance in the sky, they have a strangely ceremonial air, suggestive of pageants, consciousness-changing rituals, and collective village dances reaching way, way back into the past.
A Monet pond and boat scene (subtitled: "When regatta go, regatta go"), featuring two women seated in a rowboat, gets completely, yet quietly, transformed. A train of Williams' color-creatures stands on the curve of one woman's tresses and continues to the bow of the boat; a couple more of these mysterious personages stand at the stern, and another cavorts near the water on an oar. In other instances, a troupe of monkish figures wander across the foreground of a Klimt landscape (sunday in the park with gustav, 1997), flower-filled fields are suffused with creatures, and more of Williams' figures populate a Van Gogh streetside cafe scene (cafe a gogh-gogh, 1997), turning it into their own meeting ground. It's interesting to note that Williams has been working with these figures--which he calls his "Little Fluxus People"--for a long time, in many different situations, and in many different places. They substantially predate, for instance, Keith Haring's own signature figures. I don't mean this in any proprietary sense, it's simply worth knowing about what has come before, in much the same way that it's worth knowing how Gordon Matta-Clark's graffiti-based pieces from the early 1970s prefigure, and in fact open up a space for, works coming later which have also used graffiti. Wherever they appear, Williams' figures have a slapstick, foolish quality, but also something ethereal and angelic. Something about their sheer smallness is really vulnerable, and something about their innocence is deeply evocative.
In general, the dazzle of Williams' work has to do with this quiet collision between the ridiculous and the profound. Last year, as part of a exhibition I curated ("Shattered Latitudes" at Lombard-Freid Fine Arts), I was privileged to arrange performances by Williams (the exhibition consisted of several Polish artists, with whom Williams has worked extensively, and with whom he is psychically connected). One of his performances was a reprise of a piece in which he intones the entire alphabet, in German, but like this: A, ABA, ABCBA, ABCDCBA, ABCDEDCBA, and so on, up the mountain to Z, and back down again. He does so in a chanting, liturgical voice that's completely winning: a poet's passionate incantations, a cantor's ancient calling, a priest's high ceremonies. While you can't forget that what he's doing is an orderly recitation of the alphabet--nothing more, and nothing less--this recitation becomes richly, even wildly, touching, with its invocation of memory and forgetfulness, its instant transformation of the mundane into the exotic, its rolling drama, and sense of discovery.
For many years, Williams has lived in Europe where he enjoys considerable acclaim and a flourishing career. Comparatively speaking, he is less well-known here, in his own country, and especially among a younger generation, which is entirely unfortunate. For one thing, there's a kind of built in tendency here to treat older generation artists as "historical" figures, even though they might very much be living and breathing and accomplishing substantial work right now. For another there's the academic tendency to treat a so-called movement such as Fluxus--and Williams has been identified with Fluxus since its earliest days--in much the same way. And when you add into the mix that much of Williams' career has taken place outside of the gallery system, and furthermore elsewhere, it's easy to see why this important expatriate American would not, at the moment, be in the art world spotlight, especially the New York spotlight.
All of which is a big reason why this exhibition was so valuable--it was a chance to reconnect, in some small measure, with a substantial artist who has long been, and who still is, worthy of sustained and alert attention. Williams is an original: a border-defying artist who veers easily between antic humor and disarming profundity. He's been doing this, at a high level, for a long time, and it was excellent to see his recent efforts.
Brooklyn, New York