Twenty-Five Years Later, the Paintings of Aubrey Williams Are as Striking as Ever
When asked in a interview in the late 1980s what he expects from viewers when they look at his work, Aubrey Williams answered: “To feel! Anything. Negative or positive. To hate my work or to love it. To be excited by the work.” A quarter of a century later, after this passionate artist’s death, his paintings still pack a punch. Viewers can see for themselves at London’s October Gallery in “Aubrey Williams: Realm of the Sun,” a selection of paintings and works on paper from the 1960s through the 1980s never before exhibited to the public.
Williams was a leading figure among the postcolonial Caribbean artists that flocked to London in the mid-20th century. He was known for merging Western traditions of abstraction with Guyanese and pre-Columbian cultural, and for the vibrant expressionism of his consuming compositions. Though he had been making art since his early childhood, his vision snapped into focus while working as an agronomist in the Guyanese rainforest amid the Warrau people. “I started to understand what art really is,” he said of this experience.
After relocating to London in the early 1950s, Williams’s vision broadened to encompass influences from American Abstract Expressionism. He learned from looking at paintings by such artists as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky, whose work especially resonated with him. “He fitted in some way with my own perception, which was basically informed by pre-Columbian Indian iconography of Guyana,” he once said.
A heady mixture of ancient and modern, abstraction and figuration, and American, African, and pre-Columbian strikingly comes together in the paintings on view here from the artist’s “Olmec Maya” series, produced in the 1980s. In these commanding paintings, Olmec and Mayan motifs often appear against glowing, roiling abstract backgrounds evocative of the fiery surface of the sun, the vast cosmos, or the rock and soil of the earth. As relevant and fresh-looking now as when he made them, the works reflect the artist’s deep respect and concern for the environment and convey warnings about the perils of abusing it. As Williams himself presciently said of these works, they reflect “a modern consciousness that incorporates our Maya past and also considers our human future.”
“Aubrey Williams: Realm of the Sun” is on view at October Gallery, London, Oct. 8 – Nov. 21, 2015.