In the new exhibition City Limits at McMurtrey Gallery of Houston, Sarah Williams keeps her oeuvre in a night mood while extending her interest in architecture from industrial to residential. That shift makes her paintings mellower or dangerously bordering sentimental — for anyone who grew up in bedroom communities or small towns America.
The blazing light still erodes into the object of things. In fact, the light is always the foremost impression of Williams’ work for anyone new to her art. But this time, her imageries feel homey, occasionally festive. It is in those giant television screens or outdoor Christmas decorations that Williams lets viewers groove on the familiarity of suburbia America, only to discover a sense of peculiarity unfolds.
At the opening, Roni McMurtrey introduced the artist and summarized the current body of work as “Edward Hopper meeting Coen Brothers.” Hopper, with his knowledge on mansard roofs and ornate pillars, mystifies Victorian architecture with many of his iconic paintings. House by the Railroad is observed from the other side of the tracks. The ominous stillness is achieved through harsh shadows that only accentuate the contorted decorativeness of the late Victorian period, or “brown decades,” in the words of Lewis Mumford.
Williams also keeps some distance and views houses from afar. But Mumford would be quiet. No houses are out of proportion here. They would have dissolved totally in the dark, had the TV or Christmas light been off. One can only imagine their plainness during the day when their pale shingles blend with a bleak wintry sky.
At night, the structure hints at the activities of people inside. That blandness becomes a backdrop for the peculiarity of the unseen. Williams’ fondness of juxtaposing warm with cool, is if I paraphrase Roni’s words, more Coen Brothers than Hopper. At the same time, she refrains from pushing the intensity of saturation, often seen in her previous work, with vibrant industrial light. Instead, the flickering screen inside each house is just bright enough to capture one’s attention.
Williams may find it intriguing in the first place to paint TV screens, a ubiquitous phenomenon seen while driving through suburbs. They work as a device more inviting than revealing as the focus point of her images. They also charge her to work with different aesthetics. Here, Williams strives to seek nuances and colors within a fairly narrow range of luminosity, shrouded in a nocturnal atmosphere — In the end, the imageries radiate a kind of genteel warmth onto the otherwise quiescent neighborhood.
Often, the photographic quality in a reproduction fails to convey painterly brushstrokes, even in smaller paintings. Williams’s fascination of capturing abstraction within realism was best demonstrated in her previous pavement series. Nature, or specifically a humanized landscape, upon close inspection, is by and large, intricately patterned. In her painting Brookfield Plaza, shown at the art gallery of University of Texas at Arlington in 2013, she painted, in a near obsessive manner, an orange plastic fence lit from behind. The lost edges around burning light holes excited viewers both visually and psychologically.
In the current show, the patterns of subdued Christmas lights, albeit less repetitive, are both individualistic and collectively rhythmic. Be it whimsical or gaudy, it all depends on the eyes of the beholder. Like television screens, they invite viewers to speculate on the quality of life within the materialistic surroundings. Equally delicate, but less noticeable at the first sight, is her dedicated effort in rendering the leafless branches shivering in the winter breeze. Together, the artist’s controlled usage of abstraction hums an enchanting lullaby.
Williams, after graduating from the University of North Texas, went back to her home state.
“I grew up in a small town in Missouri,” she says. “The nearest art museum is Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City. You give directions by landmarks, like a post office or a grocery store. So when I moved to Dallas, I completely lost my sense of direction because I couldn’t find landmarks.”
Williams has a few such “landmarks” in the current exhibition. Cabool shows a motel sign with a religious quote at the bottom: R U READY MATT 24. The vintage signage (with TV hyphenated) speaks of the age of the motel. The abbreviated SMS words make you wonder if it may not be that outdated. Mysteriously, the hotel itself is out of the picture frame. All we see is an empty street lit up with a pedestrian walk sign on the other side of the road.
We may all have passed such motels in the past. Perhaps we were even annoyed by the reduced speed sign where it seemed nobody would ever cross. To some extent, those images feel nostalgic and may, shortly, become footnotes to our societal past. Baby Boomers, children of the suburban exodus, are the first generation to embrace television. Only half a century later Millennials are moving back toward urban centers, and many don’t own a television. Only time will tell how those imageries would relate in another decade or two.
But how these imageries relate to the artist is easy to understand.
Williams recalls when once someone told her that there was nothing in Missouri. “I felt hurt,” she says. “I love my home state. And I feel whenever someone takes a painting of mine home; they take a piece of Missouri with them. I am so happy for that.”