Thinking Space – interview with Bernard Williams

Download interview here: 32-37_sculpture_ jan_feb_2016

Bernard Williams investigates the complexities of American history and culture through painting, sculpture, and installation. Within these broad arenas, his work seeks a kind of open-ended dialogue, addressing identity, flattening hierarchies, and questioning who we are collectively. Risk, adventure, conquest, personal status, privilege, and mechanical development are some of the thematic concepts that he pushes into form. Williams often begins in the archives of museums and libraries. Documentary photographs might become maps for building sculptures as he attempts to merge the historical roots and current expressions of cultural material as diverse as NASCAR, Abstract Expressionism, the history of flight (including Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman), and the Mississippi River routes charted by the French explorer Robert de La Salle. Williams’s research often results in a kind of self-projection as he enters the past, present, and future through rough reconstruction, reinterpretation, and role-play. While relating hidden stories and lost narratives, he also inserts autobiographical elements into the familiar tropes of mass culture—though not all of these signs and images are clearly identifiable. Collecting, repositioning, and reshaping existing objects for new interpretations, Williams develops works and performance actions that share a very specific attitude and atmosphere rather than a clearly identifiable style.

Olga Stefan: You were trained as a painter and later moved into sculpture, but painting is still an important part of your practice. What is it about painting that keeps you coming back, and how is that preoccupation expressed in your sculpture?

Bernard Williams: Sometimes there are very direct connections between a group of paintings and a sculpture or a painting and a sculpture, like word elements as a form or strategy; the use of text as a formal element in the painting gives it a direct or indirect conversation with the sculpture. In my “Standing Chart” series, the formal elements of words and lines create a continuous engagement for me and my overall practice. I have developed a large body of paintings, which are arranged linearly. These paintings involve line, words, and symbols that mirror the activity of my sculptures. The sculptures grew out of the paintings when I started making wood cutouts of the symbols. The language that I was developing involved the use of symbols, icons, pictograms, and forms of picture-writing. Arranging and collecting this material became a way for me to speak and think.

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OS: What role do symbols of power in American culture play in your work? And what do you define as symbols of power?

BW: My relationship to symbols is much bigger than power relationships. The symbols move through so many levels of the culture; it’s a real graphic language that I’m talking about here—so it’s not symbols in the sense of video being a symbol for our age. In my work, I’m looking for a visual shorthand, an alphabet that allows me to piece together a history, a narrative, relationships. If I’m attempting to talk about power relationships, there is a certain amount of research that goes into that, and I find symbols that I arrange in my sculptures to represent the position that I’m trying to communicate. The global narrative is always in the back of my head when I’m trying to create my work.

OS: In your sculpture, you use a lot of simple, everyday materials, such as wood and car parts, assembling them into various constructions. Why do you choose these materials? How do they communicate your artistic intent?

BW: There is a certain reading of the materials that is inescapable; they are somewhat or even very familiar. The materials originate in a space of poverty—much of my early sculptural work originated with salvaged wood. That poverty of material and basic construction becomes part of how the work is read. There is no
glamour about it. Some sense of repulsion may actually be part of the encounter. I don’t have a very passionate concern for surface, which is why, for example, I haven’t tried to make the sculpture cars look real. I try to maintain them in the realm of the symbol, with multiple readings and room to play—they remain nonfunctional, kind of odd, and awkward. I’m trying to keep much of my artistic activity in the space of non-reality or even sur-reality. I think I find that to be the most successful—when it is surreality.

OS: There are certain hints of functionality and craft in your work. Tell me about the relationship that you see between those two elements and your sculptures.

BW: I’m not interested in actual functionality, but I do allude to it. The cars flirt with the history of design, machinery, function, and manufacturing, but they are non-functional and remain in the realm of fine art—absurd suggestions that lead to a kind of psychic reading. I’m pretty wedded to the handmade; my work comes from my hands. It has plenty of unfinished elements and intuitive connecting of things—I’m not looking for perfection or high finish. So, from that regard—the handmade—there is a certain craft to it. I embrace the imperfect, the vulnerable, some element of fragility that I see as my mark as an artist.

OS: What do you think sculpture means today?

BW: Sculpture is a huge arena—like all the other domains of art. It remains a thinking space that is expressed formally in all kinds of formats. I’m always curious about the work of Richard Serra, those big hulking objects. And then you have things that are less together, like the work of Phyllida Barlow, less rational, less stable. I don’t have a problem with video and sound being read as sculpture. Our vision of sculpture has expanded— it’s the expanding field of everything, actually. Suddenly a fashion designer is a sculptor; she arranges some mannequins with her fashions, and she is an installation artist, a sculptor. The state of art and practice is so unfixed, and all of our terms, our descriptions for things, are failing. I find this state of affairs challenging; it forces me to rethink things, and it orients sculpture, in my interpretation, as an expressive “thinking space.”

OS: How do you find appropriate forms for your themes? Where do you begin and stop?

BW: I know where I begin, but I don’t think there is a place to stop—I might stop due to external challenges, but conceptually, I don’t stop. A sculpture might begin with a photo
graph, a historical document, an ad, or an experience on the street. One of my wood cars began after I saw a strange and wonderful electric car in a lot. That was the beginning of investigating a particular concept, a group of ideas, really. Eventually, I decided to develop some kind of interpretation of this object through the thinking and research about it. My recurring preoccupations are this world in which I find myself trapped, for better or for worse— we can’t really escape it. It’s filled with wonder and horror. I try to shape the object around a theme—the car, for example, was an immediate engagement with Ameri can culture, the great American symbol. I investigate themes that come up around the object, the notion of desire, for example, and even some of the ideas around power and the quintessential American value of private ownership—the car becomes a symbol in which some element of the viewer’s experience is reflected.

OS:As an artist of color in America, do you feel that there is pressure on you to create work of a certain type? What is that type, and how do you respond to the pressure?

BW: There is some, and some of it aligns with my own interests. Some people are curious about the black experience, and it can be very provocative to reveal that experience through some artistic form. I’m always thinking about the black experience in relation to larger issues—global issues— or American history. I have resisted an exclusive focus on blackness. For me, race and ethnicity are elements within a very complex human story, foregrounded sometimes more or less. I like to use it as a subtle game. Sometimes you wouldn’t recognize my work as being by an artist of color. However, I think it’s been important for me to make work that connects with my experience as a black American— it can be a lot of fun and pleasurable.

OS: What role do you think art plays in the current U.S. political, economic, and social situation, and how do you see your role as an artist?

BW:Artists do what artists do. I don’t think artists have to respond to the external world and its many issues. Much of the art world right now is obsessed with politics and social issues. Some artists may choose a very reductive or empty kind of expression. There needs to be room and appreciation for many voices. That said, I have chosen to embrace social events, history, and national politics in my work. My response is gen erally indirect—though I have been accused of being didactic. My work sends some pretty direct signals about race, culture, society and order, and hierarchies. It’s difficult not to flirt with propaganda and slogan eering, and I try to embed my work with a certain amount of ambiguity, which reflects the complexity of the issues affecting our society. It’s difficult to make truly insightful comments if you don’t really know the situation in depth; and with the state of the media, getting real information that is accurate and not manipulated is extremely difficult.  I like the idea of pointing at social issues in my work. Solving issues is another concern. Some artists seek this direct change and engagement format. It can be an interesting space to engage. I’m curious about it all. There is a lot of history that we are still repeating. When there is a situation of abuse or violence from authorities, we can easily look to past historical moments and see that this is repeating over and over again. A reference to Jim Crow America of the 1920s or 1930s can become a commentary about the current climate, but I’m interested in playing with these ideas of power and struggle. That’s one of the big social issues that we’re muddling around in. But there is internal struggle as well—the life and work of an artist has all those elements that we see in society.

OS:Your recent show at Thomas McCormick Gallery was called “The Dark Comedown.” What was the concept?

BW: It’s an open-ended title. “Dark comedown” is a blues music phrase. There’s a suggestion of dread in the term. I showed one of my sculpture cars and several of my wall sculptures made from car bumpers. All of the work in the show embraced themes of urban culture and some of the anxiety around the urban experience. I also showed several paintings—large heads that were blocked literally and figuratively. These heads were based on African masks, which inserted some ideas around race and ethnicity. One was remasked with a fragment of an American flag. I was curious about the dissonance of the painted mask and the flag material, and an interesting duality emerges around nationality. I want the masks to draw the viewer to the literal space of one’s head or mental state. Much of the plastic material of the car bumpers held smears and scars from life on the streets. There is meaning or suggestion in this kind of material for me.


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