Artist Justin Williams Brings Tales from Afar to Brooklyn

Jul 13, 2016 9:08PM

In the Dandenong Ranges of Australia, the notorious yoga instructor turned cult leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrns, made a home for herself, the “reincarnation of Jesus Christ,” and her adopted children, the “inheritors of the earth.” The unethical practices of the sect, “The Family,” were brought to light by one of the children, Sarah Moore, who was expelled at the age of 17. Though the group’s activity has slowed dramatically since its heyday in the 70s, there is still a presence in the area.

It is in this lush green rainforest, under a ceiling of ferns, that Australian artist Justin Williams prepared the mystical paintings and ceramics that can be found in his exhibition, Figures & Vessels, on view at ART 3 through July 24th. 

Installation view of "Figures & Vessels" at ART 3, Brooklyn. Courtesy of ART 3 and the artist. 

Upon entering the gallery, one is immediately struck with a sense of wonder. The deep, rich colors engulfing ghostly forms transport the viewer to a mythical landscape; a contemporary Grimm’s Fairytale set in the rainforests of Australia. The flat background breathes life through the small ceramic pieces that pepper the exhibition. The coherence of the mediums is impressive - the translation from paint to clay, and back again, is seamless. Williams describes the ceramics as, “extensions to the paintings.” “They’ve helped my paintings so much. Now I can approach a painting like a 3D object, which I couldn’t do before I made sculptures.” In both, the figures’ lack of detail might lead one to suspect that they are anonymous entities born from the artist’s mind, but in fact, each portrays a very specific character he has come across either in person or through legend. 

Installation view of "Figures & Vessels" at ART 3, Brooklyn. Courtesy of ART 3 and the artist. 

Four works in the exhibition were inspired by the tale of Willie Koeppen, a German chef who owned numerous restaurants in Melbourne, one of which, the kitschy Cuckoo in Olinda, became notorious after a robbery gone horribly wrong. Mysteriously, Koeppen disappeared in 1976, becoming a subject of local lore. Williams says, “They dug up whole areas of the forest trying to find his body. There have been alleged sightings of him up north in the Islands of Queensland.” Referring to Missing Willie Koeppen, the first work you see upon entering the gallery, he states, “This [landscape] could be a tropical scene from up north or it could be where he’s thought to be buried in the forest. I also wanted to keep him quite ghostly. For all we know, he could just have a normal family living in the suburbs somewhere. He pops up a lot in my work.” Somehow these works seem almost alive - as if Williams mixed the spirit of Willie Koeppen into the pure bright pigments he brushes across each surface. 

Missing Willy Koeppen, 2016

Depictions of Williams’s neighbors, the remaining members of “The Family,” partaking in various rituals can be found throughout the exhibition. The largest canvas in the show, “Apple Orchard Orgy,” captures three naked figures tangled in poses you might attempt in an advanced yoga class. The tree branches twist and turn around them, mimicking their bended limbs. The standing figure, an androgynous hodgepodge of fleshy-to-purple tones, stares blankly at the viewer. The intensity of his blank gaze is noteworthy, especially considering the act in which he is engaging. There is no expression of pleasure, no indication of arousal; instead the viewer is confronted with an unsettling emptiness. In another piece in the gallery, a ceramic vase titled Vessel, Williams took clay from the sect’s compound and mixed it in with the material that was ultimately baked and glazed. The forest is brought to us - in mood and reality. 

Vessel, 2016
Apple Orchard Orgy, 2016

Williams’ fascination with the eccentricities born and fostered in the most remote corners of the planet are what brought him to the Dandenong Ranges, to Phillips Island off the coast of Southern Australia, Indonesia, and most recently, to the region surrounding Erskine Falls in Victoria. The isolated areas provide, not only a unique cast of characters, but the space and time necessary for the paintings to come together organically. “The paintings happen over time,” says Williams, who has become accustomed to spending long stretches alone. “There is a push and pull in the painting process. I have to trust that the painting will take me where it wants to go, instead of just forcing it into an image that is based on something.” The tension he describes is tangible. In Missing Willy Koeppen, for example, the emerald trunk of a tree in the background intersects a bright pink flower petal in the foreground. As a viewer you know logically that the trunk should rest behind the petal, out of sight. Instead of actively making a choice in placement, it almost feels as though Williams pondered an error and decided that it enhanced the work as a whole. He describes his compositions as a compilation of “very subtle mistakes that come together.” 

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray that, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Though Justin Williams describes himself as an observer, it is clear that the mind through which his images are rendered sees more than just objects and forms; it is the spirit of his characters, an essence distilled into color and line, and a palpable mood that stays with the viewer long after they have left the gallery.


—Amy Silver 

Amy Silver is an artist, based in Brooklyn, and a Gallery Liaison at Artsy. 

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