DALE WILLIAMS

Narrative statement regarding twenty years of art-making

In the spring of 1989 I received an MFA from Hunter College in New York City. At that time I had already been living in New York working as an artist for 12 years, having received a BFA from the Cooper Union in 1977. But more than receiving a graduate degree 1989 was important because that year I began a course of work that I have developed consistently over the past 20 years. This artistic turning point was marked by a focus on personal, figurative imagery taken from the imagination. I believe these images showed our shared world but as if from the inside. This had been an occasional tendency in my work up to that point. Until 1989 my work had been tackling the issues of abstraction versus figurative representation with little resolve.

There were two strong formative influences on the direction my work would take. The late paintings of Philip Guston were familiar to me since my last years as an undergraduate. I liked their storytelling, their melodramatic humor, their painterliness and emotionalism. These qualities became touchstones for my art. Equally important to me was Guston’s belief in the significance of the artist’s endeavor, which I felt was apparent in all the choices in his varied career. He became a sort of spiritual artistic mentor for me. I still hold his example in the highest regard.

I had written poetry and studied it seriously since my college years. A second influence on my art was the surrealist poets of Spain and South America. I read them primarily in the 70s Press translations of the poet Robert Bly. His short introductory essays to their poems were more influential for me as an artist than any writing about art I read at that time. Like Guston’s art their work was deeply personal but presented in a language of images that often had the wildness of dreams. The imagery in their poems seemed to leap into consciousness as a natural response to the world. I wanted these qualities in my art.

Two works from 1989 signal the direction my art would take. One is entitled “An Open Book.” It was originally intended to be an accordion-fold book that could be viewed by either turning the pages or opened out completely to reveal a seamless narrative landscape (it was ultimately displayed as two long panels hung one above the other). My working process depended on improvisation whether doing abstract or image-based work. The implied endlessness of a single continuous landscape felt like the visual space best suited to the uninhibited flow of images. Passages of writing appear throughout this work. The writing evolved during the process of working on the drawings and served to amplify the feelings present in the images.

The other work from this period that was significant was a large drawing called “Private Property.” In this work I wanted to resurrect all of what I felt was the unwanted imagery buried in the heavily painted surfaces of my past abstract works. Its unedited, personal, and psychological imagery became the backbone of my art. This was a very concentrated period of work and in the autumn of 1989 “An Open Book” was included in the exhibition “Selections 46” at the Drawing Center in New York City.

Over the next nine years I developed these ideas in oil paintings. I always thought of myself as a painter so this was a natural choice. Painting would add richness and depth, and therefore a greater emotional impact, to my art. I also began to make actual books. I liked how a narrative could be suggested by stringing together unplanned and sometimes disconnected images. Each double-page spread within these books was a fully realized drawing. The density and sheer abundance of book-making appealed to me.

My daughter was born in 1992 and in anticipation of that event I took a staff position at a publishing company for which I had previously worked as a freelancer. This is a position that I still hold, although with more responsibility. Looking back I wonder if the extensive use of collage, as well as the book form itself, offered a way of working incrementally, adding bits and pieces of imagery, text and other fragments that allowed me to accomplish a lot in shorter, more concentrated periods of time. Although these methods developed out of tendencies in my art, they were also suited to my new situation.

I began to feel there was a fight within me regarding the success and failure of the books versus the paintings. So I tried to make the process of the paintings as similar to the books and drawings as I could, incorporating odd collage elements—scraps of wood, canvas from discarded paintings, aluminum foil—and even writing with thinned-down oil paint. Still, I felt the books were winning this fight. And yet I held to painting as an area where I had to gain true achievement. I never worried about the commercial viability of my work, but at that time I began to think that the books alone would not open up professional possibilities for my art because of the difficulty of displaying them. I felt it was unfortunate that the intensity contained in them remained hidden between two covers. But I did exhibit some of the paintings from this period in a group show that I co-curated called “Unwanted Figures of the Imagination.” It was sponsored by an independent artists organization in New York City, and was held in a former police headquarters building.

In the spring of 1997 I met the artist Leon Golub. I had always admired his work for its political content and rawness of imagery and technique. He invited me to visit him in his studio in response to some photos I sent him of works I was exhibiting in a two-person show in the basement of the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York Public Library. I brought one of my books and reproductions of recent paintings to show him. The book impressed him, the paintings not so much. He questioned my commitment to the medium of oil painting. He pointed out that his wife, Nancy Spero, had worked exclusively with drawing on paper for years—one could make important works in media other than painting. I knew this was true, but I felt uneasy picturing myself as an artist without painting. Golub’s interest in my work at this time helped me take a hard look at subconscious assumptions I held about my art, and to focus on and develop the strengths in my work that I had begun to take for granted: an intensely graphic quality that had a lot of emotional impact, and a genuine and personal imagery.

In late 1997 my work was in a group show at the Painting Center in New York City. It was a good venue and I felt it was a great achievement to show there. But when looking at my painting in the gallery I felt the figure wasn’t clear enough, that it was mired in the paint. After that show I switched to acrylics. They allowed me to work in a way that felt freer and closer to the methods I practiced in my drawings and books. I made multi-paneled paintings that I thought of as books spread out across a wall: “Losers Chorus,” and “The Landscape of Attis” are two examples. I then began a series of large paintings called “Mercy Street.” They incorporated photographs, text, collage, and painting. I thought I would work on this series for a long time, each painting adding to a panoramic depiction, a metaphorical landscape, of contemporary life. I made large books to accompany the paintings. They were to be a gloss on the paintings, simultaneously complicating and explaining them. This series ended sooner than I had planned: the last painting of the group, “Our September,” was a memorial painting for the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Events compelled me to deal with other subjects.

In my works between 2001 and 2006 I tried to deal directly with political issues that were important to me such as our country’s unilateral militarism that culminated in the Iraq War, hurricane Katrina, and returning Iraq War vets. I was invited to show a large selection of this work at the Brownson Gallery of Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, in January 2007. I called this exhibition “Imaging the Political Soul—Paintings and Books since 9/11.”

For most of 2007 I suffered profound doubt about the purpose of my art and my abilities as an artist both technically and intellectually. I am still not rid of those feelings. But I had a project that year that inspired me to take a new and fruitful course. That year I created a set of twenty-four drawings for a novel by a friend, the writer Ben Miller. The novel was about an imaginary 6th borough of New York where people went to live who had failed at everything in the other boroughs, an antic and compassionate collection of lost souls. The sympathy I felt for his subject helped me see a new path for my work. I saw that I could create a world that was a metaphor for experiences people have in common yet often prefer to ignore: our failures, vulnerabilities, and our strivings. I’ve stripped everything out of my recent work but the figures themselves, wanting their evident struggle to be a real and affecting presence.

December 2009

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