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Richard Williams' page.


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by Cliff Eyland.


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with Richard Williams
by Cliff Eyland.


Click here to read a 1986
essay by Dale Amundson.


Richard Williams
Richard Williams Work


Richard Williams: An untitled study for the Annunciation Series, 1985, graphite on paper. Collection of Gallery One One One; gift of the artist.

[Note: The following text by George Swinton was first published in 1996 in the Gallery One One One catalogue Flesh and Blood, Richard Williams and the Art of Re-mythologizing. That exhibition took place 8-29 November 1996.]

To categorize Richard Williams as modern, contemporary
or post-modern would be as irrelevant to his work as it
would be to his technique and to him as a person. In our
times — i.e., in the 1990's — these words have fallen out of
common use. At least, I hardly dare to use them anymore
as they have become tainted by art historical, critical and
journalistic jargon attempting to categorize periods, art
trends and artists.

When once it was said to Williams by an art official that
his work was "not mainstream," that mere art-trend-think-
ing individual was, in fact, quite right: Williams and his
work are not mainstream, they are not in fashion, nor are
they avant -garde. They are outside any current art trend.
They simply are. Yet Williams is in many ways a 'modern'
— a man (a person, in fact, a male) with mostly modern,
secular views, bur not necessarily modern tastes.

Then, of course, art officials have flippantly parroted again
and again the 'modern movement in art' labels and epi-
thets (cf. Impressionism, Pointillism, Vauxcelles' Fauvism,
Apollinaire's Cubism, Ezra Pound's Vorticism, etc.). In
fact, Picasso once had to assert himself opposite a typecast
ing journalist, saying "I am not a Cubist painter, I invent-
ed Cubism." For he knew that in art, particularly in mod-
ern art, "one who follows will always be behind." What
Williams follows is himself, himself within his world of
ideas and history, and of his instincts. And these include
his senses or, dare one say, his essential sensuousness?
That his senses include unconventional religiousness could
escape only the ultraorthodox, the odd antireligious or the
totally insensitive. The question ensuing here is: is his
being so unconventionally religious also a part of his abiding
pictorial sensuousness? Or does this sensuousness like
that of the mystics — which includes the intellect! — mani-
fests itself as a variety of religious ecstasy? And, even
more, is Williams' imagistic sensuousness not also the
conviction and delight of a highly religious modern per-
son vis-a-vis feminist interpretations of Mary as the
eternally present feminine? 1 Mary not merely being a
mythical pseudomorph because of her immaculate con-
ception but the ultimate, uncorrupted, archetypal female
as actual, physical mother. Or is she the archetypal moth-
er as physical woman?

As Williams so candidly describes in the introduction to
his 1993 exhibition "MARY HAD A DREAM" at the
Main/Access Gallery "...ancient hatreds may threaten her
but enduring love, generosity of spirit, faith, hope and
forgiveness are at the heart of the story and are embodied
in my image of Mary. Add to this Mary's awesome pow-
ers as the Virgin Mother and we are brought face to face
with that feminine force that has most profoundly influ-
enced the course of Western History." To which he sadly
adds "...not always for the best, some would say; but
whose fault is that? I am trying to discover what all this
can mean to me and, by extension to others." And then
he confidently assures that "...although the mystery of the
Virgin Birth defies common sense and the 'truth' of the
whole story is challenged daily by hard-headed studies,
...I offer it as established fact." (italics mine) He then con-
tinues emphatically "... my Mary has been removed from
a distant past and is shown in the here and now. She is as
human as we are and dreams of better times. Listening to
the promises of an angel, she agrees to risk everything in
order to help reinvent her world." (cf. St. Luke 1,verses 26
-38)

Earlier in the introduction he had warned the viewer that
his "images should not be confused with religious icons
nor are they intended ever to serve anyone's misogyny.
On the contrary, they try to dismantle the bloodless
image underlying the visceral polemics of gender poli-
tics." 2 But, contrary to his warnings, I have learned to
view these images as religious icons.

The images first seen could be viewed quite literally
as physical likenesses or merely as optical represen-
tations of what they plainly are imaging or pictur-
ing. But images go beyond mere literalness. They
almost never are mere optical representations.
Inevitably they also are metaphors, premeditated or
unpremeditated signs and symbols which represent
or denote varying meanings, or have connotations
going beyond literal and optical representations.
Like religious icons, they are truly able to represent:
analogically, allegorically, metaphorically, symboli-
cally, poetically, textually, etc. Individually and all
together, they evoke in me the conventional reli-
gious and devotional imagery as I remember them
from my childhood, painted on wooden panels
nailed to trees or mounted on poles like standards
or placed with Stations of the Cross along roadsides
and calvaries.

Williams, interested in and knowing the visual lan-
guage — imagery and techniques — of the earlier
Renaissance, re-invents its application and creates
his very own kind of imagemaking which certainly
lies outside today's mainstream.3 For it is based
on theological and literary references, including the
"Virgin Birth as an established fact," in a culture as
anti-literary as ours. And, also, having asserted that
"she agreed to risk everything in order to help rein-
vent her world," Williams adds that "...alone she
makes her shattering decision in an age beset by
politicised differences." But then, right away, he
proclaims that "...it is time for a change — a new
millennium - and Mary, like Solomon's bride, 'is
she who looketh forth as the morning, fair as the
moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with
banners.'"4

That precisely - purity, praise and awe — sets the
major key leading to comprehension and apprecia
-tion — aesthetic and literary — of Williams' re-mythol-
ogized work. Two major affirmations of his work and
thoughts were published at the time of his first solo
exhibition "LADY DAY” 5 at Gallery I.I.I, in
March 1986: Dale Amundson's Introduction to the
small, but exquisite exhibition catalogue and Arthur
Adamson's review article in Border Crossings,
Summer 1986. These two publications are poignant
and vital. My preface to FLESH AND BLOOD is
merely intended to put together a thematic context
to the works in this exhibition.

There is yet another important key to the compre-
hension of the work, and to Williams himself, name-
ly that he is so truly American in the best sense of the
so ethnically loaded and politically incorrect phrase.
But having lived and taught in the United States
(particularly in New England) for five years, I felt
highly privileged in getting to know what I then
called "the heart of Americanism." I refer to that
open, naively confident yet utterly pragmatic capacity
of believing in and searching for the near impossible,
the never quite real, and the almost unknowable.
Williams' retelling — re—mythologizing — the story of
Mary and the Annunciation contains the magical
American element of idealism combined with
hideous realism, of poetic narrative combined with
repugnant imagery, the Garden of Eden combined
with the hell of urban America in which barbarism
and polemics exert aggressive influences. To me, all
this lies behind Williams' bold attempt to re-mythol-
ogize the imagery of the Christian Annunciation in
order to bring the biblical story, so difficult to accept
rationally, into the drama of a current context.
It is unfortunately this dramatic but very magical
context which, without explanations or guidance,
easily remains hidden to contemporary viewers.
Adamson and Amundson help us with their telling
interpretations and discerning clues. However, while
they thereby invite further searching, I am inclined to
hope and opt for personal, creative sensing as
Williams' work lends itself to multiple readings.
His images, like his titles, are more poetic than
prosaic, just as they often are ambiguous or contro-
versial, permitting and even demanding diverse
interpretations. This by itself is a challenging quali-
ty of the art of painting that it can afford the luxu-
ry of ambivalence, i.e., of not being entirely explic-
it or overly specific. Illustrations have to be that
and, mostly, that alone. In painting — as in music —
experience, imagination and feeling of the viewers
participate in completing works of art through
individual perceptions of form and narrative.

As Williams painted his — dining room — triptych
with Mary sitting on the table, the potential sym-
bolism of the sacrament of Holy Communion, the
Eucharist of the Last Supper, - i.e., the dispensing
of bread and wine (the flesh and blood) - unfolded
as a revealed reality: Mary as the ultimate meal of
the Last Supper, dispensed on the Communion
table - Mary as the Flesh and Blood of the
Incarnation. The triptych's title "Flesh and Blood"
is to me, therefore, the most significant clue to the
entire exhibition - Mary accepting her sacrificial
role as the Virgin Mother, but now re-mytholo-
gized. That angel, by the way, is Gabriel the mes-
senger from God and not the stereotyped, cute lit-
tle putto figure recently so fashionable in popular
culture, nor even the perennial guardian angel. In
the triptych's metaphoric imagery, the angel is
God's messenger angel Gabriel; the young woman
is Mary (with all that this implies); the table on
which she sits is a table (as a transfigured offertory
slab — an altar?); the red ribbon running through
the composition is a ribbon, as a ribbon of blood?
the three little angels on the right wing are three
little feminine angels, as a chorus? as witnesses?
witnesses to what? And the cup?0n the other
hand, I can easily conceive of an imaginative televi
-sion producer using Williams' paintings, letting the
camera float around in them, with voices of an
interviewer with Williams and perhaps one or two
friends behind the camera, probing the possibilities
and subtleties of the paintings' form and content.
Yet, while we would get some very good notions, we
still would not be able to know unequivocally what
is what, and why is why. For our senses and our
minds would be stimulated not to 'know' uncondi-
tionally, but to see beyond that which is pictured or
described. And then, with Williams, as pictorially
and textually conveyed by him, we might be able to
see or, at least, to feel, the Annunciation and Virgin
Birth — now re—mythologized — "as an established
fact" as he had offered it to us.

George Swinton, Winnipeg, 1996

EPILOGUE

In its beginnings, art history was largely based on
the formal aspects of style and beauty, i.e., on the
formal qualities of connoisseurship. Only in the
1920s did Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind and the
Warburg Institute start to emphasize cultural and
socio-historical contexts with eventually corre-
sponding iconographic and iconological parameters.
In this way, art history changed from a "connois-
seur's pursuit into an academic discipline." But, in
the main, both these attitudes to art history, so
socially and intellectually exclusive, served only
those relatively very few who, in one way or other,
could afford the luxury of ownership, as well as of
taste and interest in the arts. Art history and art
appreciation were essentially, and largely still are
elitist, in growing contrast to the democratic hopes
and life styles which evolved after World War II.
These latter have now swept the world, permitting
and even demanding the general access to, and pop-
ularization of the arts and, in theoretical parallel, to
new approaches to art history. These have included
marxist, socio-political, structural, feminist, gen-
der, psychoanalytical, and diverse other strategies,
quite loosely grouped under the indefinite term "the
new art history," each with their own specific —
heavy-handed? — language.6

The question which, however, comes to my mind is:
should any kind of such art history have to be part
of "democratized" appreciation of art? Also, should
any work of art be accessible to the growing number
of art viewers, listeners and readers only through
populist interpretations or criticism? And if so, how
profound can such 'knowledges' ever be? I fear that
the damage done to a lasting appreciation of works
of art by folksy, literal analyses and popularized
(simplistic?) interpretations can be considerable. As
far as I am concerned, true and lasting - yet still flex-
ible - understanding and appreciation of art can
come only from becoming increasingly familiar with
a work by viewing, reading or listening to it directly
in its specific context, and in conjunction with its
distinct and specific associations. Such, I believe,
could and should also be the goal — and the method
— of any or all art education.

G.S.

NOTES

(1) Surely, feminism and sensuousness are not
mutually exclusive. To me, feminism, since its very
beginnings was a both sensitive and sensuous
nomenon.

(2) A passage which, with Williams' sensuously
compassionate but so often grim imagery, would
not win him kudos from intransigent feminists.

(3) His linear adroitness recalls the sensuous
incisiveness of Crivelli and Cosimo Tura but,
his not infrequent reliance on various collage tech-
niques, he is equally reminiscent of the simultane-
ous and subliminal effects used in modern films.

(4) The Song of Solomon, 6, verse 10

(5) That Williams was Director of the School of Art
from 1954 to 1973, taught here until 1987, and is
Director Emeritus since 1992, is largely of bio-
graphical interest but had nothing to do with that
exhibition. That he continued, and still continues
to be an active artist, however, is of great impor-
tance.

(6) cf. The New Art History. ed. A.L. Rees
and F. Borcello, London: Camden Press, 1986

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adamson, Arthur. Review article "Lady Day
Richard Williams: Traditional Iconoclast,"
Border Crossings, Summer 1986

Amundson, Dale. Introduction to Lady Day
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, Gallery I.I.I., 1986


The Richard Williams CD-ROM includes information about other Gallery One One One projects: Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2. Gallery Hours: Noon to 4 PM (weekdays only).TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp eppr@ms.umanitoba.ca