It’s okay if they die—they’re animals
We thought the victims few at first—They were in the millions billions
In writing about Peter Williams’s 2013 show of paintings at Foxy Production, John Yau stated that “the world Williams depicts [...] is a vulnerable one where everything has either gone haywire or is about to.” In The N-Word, Williams’s current show at Novella Gallery, Williams shows viewers what it is like now that everything has actually gone haywire. The central figure of the show is an African American superhero sporting an American flag cape. His job is to protect people from the police who are depicted as pigs, brute Cyclops, or—as in the painting hidden in the gallery’s office—a vampire about to suck the blood of a black man.
On ViewNovella Gallery
March 13 – April 5, 2015
Wearing an ochre onesie emblazoned with a bright red “N WORD” across his chest, Williams’s character, N-WORD, bears more than a subtle resemblance to Chris Ofili’s Captain Shit. Both wear red calf-height boots, red gloves (out of which N-WORD sprouts fins), and a splash of red across the midriff—where Captain Shit has only a belt, Williams’s character wears full red briefs. Star motifs often surround the superheroes, a reference in Ofili’s works to “the many untold stories of fame in black history.”1 In Williams’s work, they are a clear riff on the badges worn by police officers. N-WORD’s patriotic cape is an obvious, but effective attempt to deconstruct the status quo schema in which race and patriotism are often perceived.
If one were to glance briefly at Williams’s works, the bright palette and carnivalesque scenes might belie the violence depicted. And, even after spending time with the paintings, processing that violence and thinking about the very real murders they depict, the elements of humor allow the viewer an out. Though the moment of Eric Garner’s death is depicted in “Untitled” (30-by-40 inches), the brutal violence of that moment is offset both formally and ideologically with a close-up of the police officer’s pink (and hairy) butt crack, bulging forth from his belted uniform. It’s a challenging—perhaps subversive—gesture Williams is offering to his viewers, the absurdity softening the potentially didactic nature of the works.
While clearly a direct progression from Williams’s previous bold and bright absurdist paintings, The N-Word stands apart with a palpable immediacy and rawness. Williams painted all nine of the works within six weeks early in 2015, following the acquittals of both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. There’s a crudeness seen in the rough, flat application of the paint. White canvas is often left exposed, and text is applied in pencil: “I CAN’T BREATHE” is transcribed across the sidewalk a hundred times over, while “OINK! OINK!” hovers above a police officer engaged in a headlock.
There is one painting in the show in which N-WORD is not the superhero we see in the other works. In “Untitled” (30-by-30 inches), he’s standing at the center of a mob wringing his hands. He looks lost—like he doesn’t know how he got where he is. The eyes and teeth of the police officer to his right remain unpainted voids, while a crowd of zombie-like figures surround N-Word with outstretched arms, one of which wields a bat, like a mob at a lynching. The outline of a muted brown figure in the crowd is marked in pencil with “TRAYVON” in front of which a white child in a pale yellow floor-length gown stands mysteriously reminiscent of an angel. Rather than N-WORD the warrior, here we see a vulnerable man in a costume.
“Untitled” (16-by-16 inches), is a close-up portrait of a black police officer. Reminiscent of van Gogh’s Postman paintings, it’s the only work in the show in which a police officer is not depicted as a caricature or a pig, and the only painting in which N-WORD is absent. The police officer’s eyes are open wide, but his expression portrays an exhaustion, a weariness. Looking at it immediately brought to mind a recent New York Times article about Anthony Hill, the former marine who served in Afghanistan before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Hill was shot and killed by a white police officer outside of his apartment, naked. The Times included a photo of Hill with his parents, in his military blues as well as one of Hill’s Twitter posts from December, a response to the events in Ferguson: “If 99 of 100 officers” were on the streets “killing black men like its hunting season,” he wrote, “that still leaves 1 just doing his job. Stop w/ the generalizations.” Williams, too, is grappling with the generalizations, presenting a brutal and confused—and somehow even humorous—look at the world gone haywire.
1. Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter, Afro Modern – Journeys through the Black Atlantic. Tate Publishing, 2010.