Review: Peter Williams in The Brooklyn Rail
Four and Twenty Blackbirds (2018) is subdivided by a tree whose branches spread across the canvas, filling it with foliage painted by means of closely packed green dots, patches of sky denoted by blue dots, and passages of red dots interspersed throughout. Among the branches are six birds and three human faces, two of the faces in profile are barely evident, the third, fully articulated face, looks out from the trunk’s base. Written inside of a branch, the width of the rectangle, is the line “Four and twenty blackbirds—baked in a pie, oh my oh my!” Williams pushes this nursery rhyme into more troubling territory through the presence of the tree, which for Williams is an inescapable image of lynching. As these linkages sink in, the red passages in the painting suddenly become savage: “Blood at the leaves and blood at the root,” as Billie Holiday famously sang.
Williams is influenced by and pays homage to Chicago’s African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), a collective formed in 1968, which sought to create a politically loaded black visual aesthetic. His five portraits of heroines (including Therese Patricia Okoumou—who climbed the Statue of Liberty’s base this past July to protest U.S. immigration policy—along with better known figures such as Harriet Tubman and Maxine Waters) echo Chicago’s famous Wall of Respect (1967), a mural depicting Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois, painted by founders of AfriCOBRA. Williams’s painting Fierce Fighters (Angela Davis) (2018) rethinks AfriCOBRA member Wadsworth Jarrell’s stunning 1971 portrait, Revolutionary (Angela Davis).
Goya is another essential touchstone, with numerous references to the Spanish master’s Los Caprichos (1797 – 1798) and Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810 – 1820). It is no surprise that these two print series should be foundational for Williams, as they comprise some of Goya’s greatest works of witnessing, marking the corruption of the Church and documenting the boundless cruelties of warfare. Williams is just as committed to describing the follies and horrors before his own eyes. A Foolish Trick (2018) is his response to Goya’s May the Rope Break! (Plate 77). Goya’s priest on a tightrope is replaced by a man atop a horse standing on a rope; the man looks in a hand mirror while a crowd gapes, the people so heavily satirized they are all equally ignoble. Wild Thing, I Think I Love You (2018) includes the corpse spiked on a tree from Goya’s This is Worse (Plate 37), though the original composition is reworked to add an array of characters, including some pig–shaped police capturing black men in the background. The donkey that figures largely throughout Los Caprichos appears as a priest in A Blunt Message, The Truth (2018), reading scripture to an intrigued black woman while a black man is crucified above, and a baby cries for attention but receives none.
This work is not for the faint of heart, but neither is Goya’s. Many may shrink from such direct confrontation with our country’s racist machinery, but it is a luxury not to think about white supremacy. White Americans should face the truth: our nation’s wealth—and the wealth of white families, in particular—is built by the historical enslavement of black people and the post-Civil War economic exploitation of black Americans, including Neo Jim Crow and the current plunder of black bodies in our gargantuan prison system. Obama’s election catalyzed an urgent reenergizing of America’s forces of racial hatred, and subsequently, the need for a national reckoning. Williams has developed an aesthetically potent language with which to weave these painful realities into his paintings, exhorting us to pay attention and respond.