Confronting gender politics and the violation of the female body has been the primary focus for Sue Williams throughout her career. Within the last decade her interest has expanded to subverting the patriarchal power of political systems. This exhibition at 303 Gallery, curated by artist Nate Lowman, traced her varied body of work, from painting to drawings to sculpture, since 1989.
Williams’s feminist politics have taken a more subtle direction since she started; there was no naked, vulnerable woman clutching a teddy bear in the middle of the gallery, as in her first major exhibition. Williams’s later paintings portray an explosive carnage, with cartoonlike energy that seems to marry late Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston with R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman. But instead of rolling with this masculine world, Williams takes it on headfirst. From a distance, corporeal debris appears as abstract patterning until close-up a scatological grotesquerie becomes apparent, displaying the burst innards of an obscene but tidy war. Orgies of dismembered body parts mutate and copulate across the canvas in brilliant colors on hard-white backgrounds, while fluid brushstrokes delineate the crisp outlines of the various appendages, which include intestines, scrotums, orifices and arteries.
In drawings made on scrap paper and napkins Williams has sketched or noted down events as they happen and then framed them against decorative wallpaper. This combination of the political or the fecal with the floral, such as in Giuliani (2010) or Nature’s Symphony (2010), juxtaposes a gritty reality within a domestic setting. (Although perhaps preaching to the choir when highlighting the flaws of the U.S. political system, Williams takes on subjects that continue to be relevant: wars are not over, women are still suffering.) The drawings are intimate, raw and leave little to the imagination, similar to her sculptures that have a Paul McCarthy crudeness to them. Free Vomit Zone Revisited (2003–2010), for example, features a pair of pink fluffy slippers splattered with fake brown vomit. By contrast, the lyrical decoration of the paintings neutralizes their vulgarity. Instead of immediately feeling bombarded by an onslaught of sexual imagery and turning away, the abstract patterns draw us in, only revealing the artist’s underlying concerns once the nature of their details become apparent.