“In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”
Hardly ever there will be an exhibition more suitable to manifest Gertrude Stein’s famous quote than Sarah Williams’ current exhibition — Remote America. Yet America has changed since then. What Stein saw as quintessential America more than seven decades ago, would be unfamiliar to GenY and Millennials, raised in the cradles of urban sprawl. (The artist, only at 30, is a Millennial) Williams’ “Remote America” instead shows parcels of a rich land, transformed and lost in its physical isolation among vastness, and recollected as part of our subconsciousness under the car culture.
Stunningly beautiful, it is distillation of our collective memory of sharpened sense of places, when we were dislocated and lost in the anonymous, vast rural land. Growing up in the heartland, Williams drives around Missouri to take pictures for inspiration. The night scenes are ubiquitous. They help wipe out elements unnecessary for compelling compositions. Although it is tempting to ravish viewers with that brute force gravity of a dark background, Williams seeks beyond: Exquisite and extreme colors under artificial light.
That engenders ordinary objects, while still being instantly recognizable, to assume an uncommon appearance. Williams’ daring courage and acute sensibility in color exploration are rewarding. It is visually appeasing (with sort of a shock) to see warm orange on the snow or emerald green on a shed. For example, “Glenstone Ave” is a power-house to showcase the extreme brightness of yellow street light with subdued halos. One has to look close (not through any publication or website photos) to apprehend purples of varied shades in the background. The foreground, in contrast, echoes with lively lavender.
Have we all been there – some unknown parking lot? Perhaps. It gives you chills to see the extraordinary beauty and nuances out of places we deem as monotonous and forgettable.
Most paintings can fall into one of the two categories. Large paintings with distinct rural architecture elements often evoke a staged narrative. In them, empty and impersonal industrial and commercial buildings, engulfed under dark sky, loom large. Their geometry is imposing, the light surreal. We observe them from afar, as if to assume an air of objectivity. In return, they project a sense of stately formality.
That incongruence makes one uneasy. Or at least it would make Gertrude Stein so – how could such a place of “nowhere” so orderly yet at the same time so out of place? In “Campbell,” the blazing spot light sifts through a row of awnings, under which all windows are closed. It is mesmerizing to examine eerie patterns of light and shadow. The patterns get all our undivided attention first, until one notices the patronless business itself, receding as the mundane backdrop. In both “Paint Booth” and “East Monroe Street,” the foreground is tilted to create an emotional suspense for a rather unappealing scene: back corner of a warehouse complex. The suspense is further enhanced with intrinsic diagonal elements such as parking lot markings or car tracks in the snow. Both carry, to some extent, mannerism of contrived tension. What save them from being ostensible is the sense of becoming. They serve as a prelude of the storytelling, leaving viewers as sole interpolators of a plot forthcoming.
A series of pavement paintings, all in a square format and numbered based on the sequence, feature a different aesthetic. The penetrating third-person narrative angle in larger imageries is traded in for an intimate first-person narrative. Introvert in nature, these paintings often have only the closest part of pavement brighten up, as if lit from the viewer’s own pickup truck. The later ones in the series, in particular, shed light in the new direction of Williams’ interests in departing from realism of rectilinear nature of industrial architecture. Flattened up from the downward gaze, the pavement dissolves into abstract organic shapes of restrained colors, intersecting or interlocking. Edges are soft and fuzzy, as if while looking down, we are so devoured by the visual riddle itself that momentarily are lost in our own thought.
If time and place are exacted as potent omens of becoming in the previous case, the pavement series are moody essays of our self-absorption of being. A few paintings seem to derive from both categories as the self-conscious pavement patterns are jested against middle ground architecture.
My favorite is “Route 380.” It exuberates a wry wit on beauty, out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere. The tiny building is overshadowed by its exotic mural painting, featuring a massive building hybrid of Gothic and Byzantine style, against azure blue sky. The palm trees in the painting feel almost vulnerable on the frigid night, when pavement is covered with frosted cracks and black ice. One cannot help but following those intricate laced patterns which lead to the wall. It is through that short journey – from the dark concrete at foot, in the heartland of America, to bright-lit mural imagery, palpable with tropical balminess and ocean breeze – that one is treated with a surprise – a formidable range of colors that stretch and bridge the surreal and real.
“Remote America” is now on view at Art Museum of Southeast Texas until April 7, 2013.