Rachel Eulena Williams: Tracing Memory
On ViewCanada Gallery
December 10, 2020 – January 23, 2021
Ever since Donald Judd proclaimed in the 1960s that fixed categories such as “painting” and “sculpture” represented outmoded approaches to making or talking about art, artists have sought to develop hybrid means of aesthetic expression that transcend such conventional forms. To a significant degree, this impetus has come from the painting side of the binary relationship, with 1970s artists such as Howardena Pindell, Alan Shields, and Al Loving paving the way to more contemporary figures like Sarah Cain or the subject of Canada’s current exhibition, Rachel Eulena Williams, who stretch the formal perimeters of painting to their limit. While none of those artists could be accurately described as sculptors, their work doesn’t always fit even the more relaxed description of “pictures.” Instead, they create amalgams or mutations that rely on the ability to comfortably dominate the flat surface of a wall, while remaining mostly indifferent toward any specific material limitations.
Williams’s exhibition, titled Tracing Memory, builds on the tradition of apostate picture-makers with such confidence that the fact that this is also her debut exhibition at a commercial art gallery in New York City comes as a surprise. Many of the works on view lack any support structure at all, preferring instead to migrate across the wall with a breezy randomness that belies their precise deployment of shape, color, and materials. A typical Williams object incorporates painting, cutting, collage, wrapping, draping, and knotting in near-equal measures. Often, they opt for an organic feeling of effulgent growth that discards fixed edges and hidden supports in favor of dangling threads, distressed surfaces, and sagging curves. One such work, Red Grey Clay (2020), is suspended from a single horizontal bar, with thin straw-colored cords attached to a metal ring hanging by a nail several inches above. The structure, which seems to have originated as one end of a hammock, pays sly tribute to hanging macramé planters, as the three or four discrete canvas sections below, loosely painted in orange, yellow, and white, overlap one another while various string, threads, and rope dangle freely into space.
Exposing the rough parts seems to be key to Williams’s overall approach, as exemplified by The Orange Beneath the Moon (2019), a vertical work intuitively organized around two ringlike shapes whose construction appears to leave visible gaps. From there, Williams teases out a rich variety of visual relationships between pictorial incident and surface, with the “moon” half-corresponding to the ring above, which sports both a purple triangular shape painted on a deeper purple fabric, and a smaller oval section in light yellow from which a paint-encrusted coat hook protrudes. The lower ring is attached to the upper half using various ropes and a band of painted canvas, and a fourth of its surface remains uncovered, with patches of exposed wall visible behind. A smaller trapezoidal fragment of painted canvas glued to the larger piece extends a few inches to the left of the construction, as a round orange shape in the lower center once again alludes to the work’s title. Such open-ended suggestiveness lends drama to Williams’s works, while gently pushing back against any predetermination on the viewer’s part that these are explicitly abstract works. The sundry bits and pieces of rope and fabric that populate Williams’s works have a quasi-narrative, almost talismanic quality to them. Each one seems to possess specific histories that can no longer be detected within their present context, but are still very real to their author.
Not all the works in Tracing Memory follow the loose pictorial format of the larger examples discussed above. An adjoining gallery showcases a series of smaller, more tightly composed tondos, such as Sing Sin (2020), that demonstrate what the artist can do within more conventional limits. With a painted rope marking its circumference, the interior is packed with passages that almost appear as fragments of other works, cut up and recycled into this one. By making a point of introducing a broad range of distinct gestural approaches within each creation, and packing such a variety of different colors and backgrounds into their final configuration, Williams gives us a visual richness that at times seems almost like a mosaic.
With its emphasis on providing a look into studio process and the buoyant interrelationship of a diverse range of materials, Williams’s work shows us how the enduring importance of craft has empowered younger artists to scramble pre-existing categories that, as with painting and sculpture, have outlived their usefulness. While her work is as stylistically remote from Donald Judd’s as is possible, Williams nonetheless succeeds in defining a slice of stylistic territory that cannot be confined to established mediums, but which very much belongs to her.