With So Little To Be Sure Of
Februa r y 23 â€“ Ma rch 29, 2018
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Theodore S. Berger Thomas G. Devine Thomas K.Y. Hsu John S. Kiely Vivian Kuan
Beatrice Wolert-Weese Deputy Director
Shona Masarin-Hurst Programs Director
Aliza Nisenbaum Brian D. Starer Lilly Wei
Gregory Amenoff, Emeritus
Development Associate Programs Assistant
Polly Apfelbaum Lynn Crawford Ian Cooper
Michelle Grabner Eleanor Heartney
Trenton Doyle Hancock Pablo Helguera Paddy Johnson Deborah Kass
Sharon Lockhart Juan Sรกnchez
Irving Sandler Lilly Wei
CUE Art Foundation is a visual arts center dedicated to creating essential career and educational opportunities for artists of all ages. Through exhibitions, arts education, and public programs, CUE provides artists, writers, and audiences with sustaining, meaningful experiences and resources. CUEâ€™s exhibition program aims to present new and exceptionally strong work by under-recognized and emerging artists based in the United States, and is committed to exhibiting work of all disciplines from living artists. This exhibition is a winning selection from the 2017-18 Open Call for Solo Exhibitions. The proposal was unanimously selected by a jury comprised of panelists Larry Ossei-Mensah, independent curator and cultural critic; Kate Shepherd, artist; and Shannon Stratton, Chief Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design. In line with CUEâ€™s commitment to providing substantive professional development opportunities, panelists also serve as mentors to the exhibiting artists, providing support throughout the process of developing the exhibition. We are honored to work with Larry Ossei-Mensah as the Curator-Mentor of this exhibition.
With So Little To Be Sure Of Peter Williams
My current work follows up earlier concepts of
I use color and an outsider’s point of reference in
narrative or storytelling and the framing of issues in
response that endows the work with a sense or feel
mine of race and representation through the use of portraiture, object making, and oil painting in the western tradition.
The past few years have brought about the
evidence on social media of a police force out of
control. Armed with military uniforms and gear, it
becomes a questionable force in its current state,
which may also encourage outliers such as the Neo
Nazis and KKK to penetrate its ranks. I use police as a negative force against comic heroes that I create, such as the “N-Word,” a superhero for black folks
my paint handling, creating an immediacy and a
of currency. Just as Spike Lee has used race in his
films as a way to interpret whiteness, I seek to bear witness to the events and situations of our time.
While it is painful, for some, that I bring a state of offensive literature, I think we are also deserving of a critique by looking at issues of race and representation.
“Everywhere there’s lots of piggies, living piggy lives.” – The Beatles, from “Piggies”
engaging the police.
I use pigs as an easy metaphor for authority.
We are at a precipice of change, for the good or
enforcing the unenforceable, ceasing any
the worse, most likely the worse. A Black President created a model record of governance, only to
have it reflected in a totally racist culture of White Supremacy. We now face the exacting revenge of
White Males and a supremacist vision of the future that backtracks to the past for a model of racial animosity.
Designated as brutal police state authorities, representation of “negritude,” they are the
administrators of this system. They influence
every institution they invade, like pests, insects, roaches….
“Have you seen the bigger piggies, In their starched white shirts?” – The Beatles
I draw upon much of western form and framework
Detroit for seventeen years. All that traveling begot
and insights to undermine seemingly simplistic
gave me concentrated times of focus, like my first
as a critique of the system itself, using its tools
tropes. I aim at the informed and uninformed in
order to sabotage their notions of things and their
arrangements. How can I try to make folks aware of our dystopian future if they remain ignorant?
“In their styes with all their backing, they don’t
care what goes on around. In their eyes there’s
something lacking. What they need’s a damn good whacking.” – The Beatles
We may face revolt in the end, certainly not
reparations, however we must do more than bear witness. We must respond.
a lot of transitions in my productivity. But it also
job teaching at Wayne State in Detroit. I worked
with one of the best fundamental departments in
the Midwest, and I learned how to paint as a result. Making art is a somewhat cathartic experience for me. My work has always settled into an
autobiographical framework, though the themes
tend to regard representation as a constant change agent. Moving to Delaware has given me the
opportunity over the past five years to focus on my pedagogy and the work itself. I have developed a
criteria and a direction in the work. My productivity comes at a time in my life that many cease working, and I resist the Ides of March (my birthday, almost) and its effects upon me.
I was born on the shady side of the street; I’ve been asking questions ever since. I grew up in Nyack,
NY, a small town on the Hudson River. I spent my first years in college in New Mexico, lost a leg in a car accident, finished my BFA in Minneapolis, completed my MFA in Baltimore, and lived in
Just Another Pawn in their Game Larry Ossei-Mensah Curator-Mentor
“Your only true right, is a right to a fight And not a fair fight, I wake up wonderin’ who died last night Everyone and everything is at war Makin’ my poetic expression hardcore.” —KRS-One, R.E.A.L.I.T.Y. Peter Williams is a griot whose paintings can’t help but seduce you. His work operates across a spectrum of aesthetics, constantly oscillating between the garish and beautiful. Each picture pulsates with vivid colors and amusing carnivalesque forms that envelope the psyche, but upon further examination one quickly realizes there is more than meets the eye. Deeper inspection reveals that the humor and vibrant colors present in Williams’s work give way to a much more layered and nuanced conversation that coerces viewers to confront their own understandings of humanity. Spanning over the course of four decades, Williams’s oeuvre has consistently leveraged the power of art to elicit in viewers a myriad of emotions ranging from mirth to agony, all with the aim of implicating his audience in a dialogue about the current state of affairs for people of color in America. Employing fantastical imagery that sears the soul as seen in works
like Specimen or Pergamon Street, he creates a sense of delirium on the canvas that mirrors the insanity that African-Americans have been subjected to, both historically and presently. The onslaught is both physical and psychological; police brutality threatens their bodies, and negative stereotypes—ubiquitously disseminated on television and social media— threaten their mental health and sense of self-worth. Commenting on the concepts of race, representation, white supremacy, oppressive social structures, humanity and grace, the works featured in With So Little To Be Sure Of prod, provocate and proselytize their audience with narratives of social surrealism. Constructed with a sense of urgency and concern, Williams’s works speak frankly to our society by articulating the beauty and horror of daily life for Black communities in the United States. By invoking the genres of history painting and traditional portraiture with his own flair—like masters such as Bosch, Bruegel, Goya and Velazquez before him—Williams is candidly chronicling life as he sees it via dark humor and storytelling, in an effort to convey the truth through a critical lens. As his predecessors have done before him, Williams’s expressive approach provides the viewer a window into his personal anxieties about violence against black bodies.
Like a master conductor, Peter Williams cajoles and implores his audience to bear witness to the violence and oppression impacting the lives of people of color in America. In the act of bearing witness to what they see and experience on his canvases, viewers become accomplices who can’t help but become uncomfortable and disquieted. And, that is precisely the point! With So Little To Be Sure Of is a rollercoaster ride and a call to action designed to instigate a necessary discourse and movement towards demolishing the systems of oppression that attempt to subjugate not only people of color, but people from all walks of life. Special thanks to Peter Williams for being an amazing collaborator and trusting me in the process of organizing this exhibition. Thank you to Corina, Beatrice, Shona, and Eva for being so amazing! Much appreciation to Baroness Eliska Vitanovska-MayerWilliams, Kelly Baum, Heather Darcy Bhandari, Maureen Bray, Dario Calmese, Cristopher Canizares, Angela N. Carroll, Carolyn Concepcion, Ebony L. Haynes, Sasha Levine, Marisol Martinez, Ayesha Williams, and Jessica Womack.
Larry Ossei-Mensah is a Ghanaian-American independent curator and cultural critic who uses contemporary art and culture as a vehicle to redefine how we see ourselves and the world around us. He has organized exhibitions and programs at commercial and nonprofit spaces around the globe featuring a roster of critically acclaimed artists including Firelei Báez, ruby onyinyechi amanze, Hugo McCloud, Brendan Fernandes, and Allison Janae Hamilton to name a few. Ossei-Mensah is also the Co-Founder of ARTNOIR, a global collective of culturalists who design multimodal experiences aimed to engage this generation’s diverse creative class. He has documented contemporary art happenings for various publications and his writings have profiled some of the most dynamic visual artists working today: Derrick Adams, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Lorna Simpson, and street artist JR. Ossei-Mensah recently was the 2017 critic-in-residence at Art Omi. He currently serves as a mentor in the New Museum’s incubator program NEW INC and is a member of MoMA's Friends of Education.
Coolest Monkey Ebony L. Haynes
Not all superheroes wear capes; some of them wear hoodies. Starting off the New Year, Liam Mango, a young Black boy in Sweden, has become a hero of mine. When the Swedish-based fashion corporation, H&M, photographed Liam for their current look-book, they dressed him in a green hooded sweatshirt that said: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” across the front in white letters. This image is heroic in what it exposes: the relics of systemic racism, not just in the past but in the present. Peter Williams dabbles in the heroic as well. In 2016, Rotland Press released THE N-WORD: Paintings by Peter Williams. This collection of paintings responds to recent killings of Black people by cops in America. The title refers to the name of a superhero, called “The N-Word,” who dives into rioting crowds and ensures justice by plucking the white cops out of the crowd so they can’t hurt any more Black bodies, using his N-Word strength to pulverize anyone who abuses their power. Published in Detroit, The N-WORD came just before the release of other Black superhero projects like World of Wakanda (Roxane Gay) and Black Panther (Ta-Nehisi Coates). America is in need of even more Black bodies in capes, or hoodies, to bring everyone a dose of reality, though Black artists using comedy to broach “difficult” intersections of race, gender, and accessibility is nothing new.
Williams has been painting since he was in high school. His paintings show masterful composition and use of color. Williams has quite a remarkable personal narrative himself; his works, too, speak volumes. Images of black, pink, yellow, red, blue, and purple bodies and abstract shapes together create stories about lynching, gun violence, and exploiting or violating a person’s body; gaping smiles, dancing bodies, and self-reflected racial tropes make it easier for the viewer not to get too offended. The selection of works included in the exhibition With So Little To Be Sure Of are a little less suggestive and comedic and a little more literal than some of Williams’s earlier bodies of work. It’s now a Black body being shot in the back by a white cop, Black bodies being beat up by white cops, with titles like Resistance and Mass Murder. I wouldn’t say Williams sheds light on social issues or injustices because that would imply that he is exposing something that much of the world is unaware of. Rather, he uses his super powers to paint reality. This is the 21st century: Black bodies killed without cause and falsely incarcerated with no justice. Like Liam Mango, Peter Williams’s heroism comes in the form of honesty and literal translation of systemic racism for all to see. Sometimes, a pipe is a pipe. Sometimes it’s exactly what it looks like. Ebony L. Haynes is a writer and curator, originally from Toronto, now based in New York City. She is currently the director of Martos Gallery, NY and Shoot The Lobster, NY/LA. Recent exhibitions include: Invisible Man, Martos Gallery, NY; and Freud's Mouth, Cooper Cole Gallery, CA.
Black Bond - 007, 2017 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches All images courtesy the artist Photos by Carson Zullinger
Mask, 2017 Oil on canvas 72 x 60 inches
Mass Murder, 2017 Site specific installation Mixed media, dimensions variable
Specimen, 2017 Oil on canvas 72 x 60 inches
How to Make a Brutalist Painting (series), 2017 Oil on canvas 30 x 20 inches each
Pergamon Street, 2017 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches RIGHT
Stop, 2017 Oil on canvas 40 x 30 inches
Splash, 2017 Oil on canvas 60 x 48 inches
The Resistance, 2017 Oil on canvas 40 x 30 inches
The Resistance II, 2017 Oil on canvas 40 x 30 inches
Special K Standing, 2017 Oil on canvas 50 x 40 inches
Mine, 2017 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches
Histories of Violence Angela N. Carroll
“Huge amounts of medical and scientific scholarship have been devoted to the question (assuming it is a question) of what kind of species Black people are and what characteristics they possess.” —Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others Painter and mixed media artist, Peter Williams unpacks troubling histories of white supremacy and systemic oppression to create revelatory collective narratives about the persistence of violence against Black bodies. The devastating trend of unwarranted killings of Black boys and men at the hands of police officers, most of whom escaped federal conviction, catalyzed a departure from Williams’s lighter, more spiritual and reverent figurative abstract-portraiture towards more traumatic motifs. His latest body of work, With So Little To Be Sure Of, interrogates the systems and industries that perpetuate and uphold operational practices, legislation, and ideologies that normalize the dehumanization, subjugation, disenfranchisement and 26
belittlement of African Americans. In With So Little To Be Sure Of, Williams’s focus on Black identity centers on the most devastating and distressing depictions of subjugation: naked, pants around ankles, cannibalized, bullet-riddled, beaten, choked, molested, brutalized, castrated, lynched, decapitated. At the core of the work, beyond the artist’s cathartic and obsessive need to reinterpret such vicious violations, is a call to action, a call to bear witness and awaken from what he believes is “an overwhelming cultural apathy.” After encountering the collection for the first time, I was left with more questions than answers. I wondered about the artist’s intentions. Can artwork that is so heavily triggering catalyze anything more than lethargic indifference or rage? Is the contemporary art world stuck in a Black-death-porn loop, that reveres and collects portrayals of violence more than depictions of Black joy? I also thought about definitions—long histories of supremacist
Sandra Bland, 2016 Oil on canvas 72 x 60
Mosaic, 2017 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches
categorization and Othering that have enabled, and vehemently reinforced, violence against Black bodies. How can an artwork that documents centuries of atrocity be anything but horrific? Each painting is a spectacle, a window that peers into an unsettling scene in which surreal figurations have been subject to ruthless acts, with some rendered inept by the abuses they have suffered. Williams presents conceptual notions about space and the figure that have distinct narratives, situated within American history, as well as global colonial histories. The characters Williams illustrates are embedded with familiar allegories from American popular culture, radical political satire and African cosmologies. The artist also draws from classical architecture, and stylistic approaches engaged by Post Impressionists, Pointillists and Spanish Renaissance artists like El Greco. Archival prints of American lynchings have an especially resonant influence on the collection. Black men are largely portrayed as jesters, hanging bodies, or passive and humiliated victims. The act of re-envisioning stereotypical or defiled Black characters recalls the artistry of Michael Ray Charles, whose repurposed 19th century minstrel propaganda works to expose both the subtle and overt dehumanizing characterizations of race in western popular culture. Or Emory Douglas who developed empowering imagery for the Black Panther Party that likened corrupt police officers to pigs, and showcased Black bodies as valiant heroes within their communities. Williams also activates the symbology of the pig to represent whiteness, not just as a body, or subject devoid of racial distinction, but as a defiant effigy for the greater apparatus in which America functions and enforces its power through
varied institutional structures. Like Douglas, Williams’s pigs also wear police uniforms and are often placed in direct conflict with Black male figurations. In some instances, the pigs surround and attack Black bodies. In other scenes, Black representations tame the pigs as if they were lions in a Barnum and Bailey side show. Williams critiques power by displaying it as an excessive physicality between polarized subjects: the victim and the victimizer. This power play is particularly apparent in the paintings Stop, 2017, Resistance, 2017, and Resistance II, 2017. In Stop, three figures, two pig-policemen and an African American man, struggle at the forefront of a tense scene. The red coloring of a stop sign in the background bleeds across the canvas and obscures jagged fragments from the pig-policemen’s blue bodies. The composition captures an aggressive accosting of the man, whose face expresses anguish and confusion at the forcefulness of the pig-policemen’s actions. The frame traps the man between the pigs, as his body, head and one of his hands are contorted into painful angular positions. In Resistance and Resistance II, the African American man is a jester, a Yoruba inspired Esù-Elègbàra trickster, who taunts and tames the pigs in abstract circus arenas. In both compositions, the pigs are depicted as gigantic monsters, stripped of power, and controlled by the jester, who is victorious despite being dwarfed by the size of the pig-policemen. Each character is a hyper-realized personification, an identity flattened of nuance or complexity to reify racial stereotypes. The work is blatant and jarring because it seeks to declare unabashedly that violence against Black bodies is pandemic. To view
the work is to rupture any illusions about a post-racial America. To observe the work is to be reminded that America’s colonial, segregationist, and supremacist histories persist. Williams’s caricatures of violence are timely testaments about the pervasiveness of grotesque racialized exploitation. One of the most alarming aspects of the collection is the style Williams engages to reveal the violence. Barbarism is simulated as bright, whimsical acts that recall the aesthetics of animations from the early twentieth century. Many of the animations produced by major and independent companies in the 1940s and 50s left an indelible imprint on Williams, not only because of the rampant, often joyous displays of violence, but also the normalization of racially insensitive depictions of non-white figurations. The colorful palette Williams employs and the glee with which the caricatures impose their power, invokes a similarly tantalizing and disgusting abjection. In the painting, Mosaic, 2017, a Black artist stands painting at the sidelines of a dense landscape filled with smiling portraits of pig-policemen. Variations of red mosaic engulf the canvas. Smaller frames depicting distressing scenes cut through the mosaic: a pig-policeman shooting a man, a decapitated head, a battered man. Mosaic speaks to the layered ways violence against Black bodies is framed by national media outlets; the policeman is always determined to be innocent despite evidence of misconduct.
negotiation, a reflective assessment that is as much about the reaction of the viewer as it is about the content. Williams joins a controversial canon alongside other contemporary artists like Dread Scott, Kara Walker, and Makode Linde, among others, whose stark imagery, sourced from painful colonial histories, elicits a critical engagement between the viewers and the traumas portrayed. To view their works is to be implicated in brutal narratives that fostered the development of powerful nation-states around the world. In the last decade, the evolution and accessibility of handheld recording devices and social media archives have escalated the documentation and global relay of site-specific traumas. The ability to document and share instances that once happened in isolation and at the mercy of the testimony of police officers, has facilitated new hopes for real accountability. This documentation has also increased the immediacy of the gaze, and incites stark polarity in the responsiveness of viewers who are either emboldened to engage in organized collective disobedience or lulled into numb disinvestment. Williams’s series of paintings overwhelms viewers to move past a voyeuristic position, and to critically reflect on their roles as they observe harrowing offenses. Will they accept that violence against Black bodies is not imagined? If so, will they continue to peaceably watch as it occurs? The blunt realities visualized in the series are difficult to ignore.
Williams’s examination of the interplay between America’s fetishization and abhorrence of violence as it relates to contemporary civil rights presents a profoundly revelatory critique about the gaze and the universalization of observed violations against Black bodies. Bearing witness is a confrontational
Sandra Bland, 2016 recalls the horrid and avoidable death of the activist and educator who died mysteriously while in police custody at a Waller County Texas jail. The painting, Sandra Bland shows a nude woman, hands and arms bound behind her back as she is consumed by a large blue-eyed white
characterization. Small Black bodies, limbs and eyes ooze out of the pores and orifices of the massive head, formed by an amalgamation of what it has consumed. The massive head stares blankly into the distance, tilts backwards, and swallows the woman’s body whole. My experience of viewing was one of visceral nausea. Every part of my being tensed and grieved over the hopelessness of the image. Williams’s paintings are charged by such traumas, the repetitive egregious and inconceivable actions that are inflicted upon Black citizenry.
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICAUSA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
With So Little To Be Sure Of documents white supremacist violence as an all-encompassing, cannibalizing monstrosity that devours itself as it consumes Others. Histories of violence are mirrored in the contemporary moment. The lynching of 1890 recurs in New Hampshire in 2017. Enslavement in 1690 is echoed in the labor models upheld within the contemporary Prison Industrial Complex. The Black Codes of the Jim Crow South have evolved into racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and minimum sentencing legislation. History is now. Williams engages this vicious cycle, mocks it, and displays it with a striking peculiarity that tugs at the nonsensical realities that allow the violence to recur. With So Little To Be Sure Of haunts our cultural imagination with the nightmares that African Diasporic identities have been forced to adapt to and survive. No one is safe. All voyeurs, including the artist, are charged and queried.
Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist, a purveyor and investigator of art history and culture in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Carroll contributes contemporary art, performance, and film criticism for BmoreArt Magazine, ARTS.BLACK, Sugarcane Magazine, and Umber Magazine. She received her MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz and currently teaches within the Film and Moving Image program at Stevenson University in Baltimore, Maryland. Mentor Sara Reisman is the Artistic Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, whose mission is focused on art and social justice in New York City. Recently curated exhibitions for the foundation include Mobility and Its Discontents, Between History and the Body, and When Artists Speak Truth, all three presented on The 8th Floor. From 2008 until 2014, Reisman was the director of New York City’s Percent for Art program where she managed more than 100 permanent public art commissions for city funded architectural projects, including artworks by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Mattingly, Tattfoo Tan, and Ohad Meromi, among others for civic sites like libraries, public schools, correctional facilities, streetscapes and parks. She was the 2011 critic-in-residence at Art Omi, and a 2013 Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow, awarded by the Foundation for a Civil Society.
CUE Art Foundation's programs are made possible with the generous support of foundations, government agencies, corporations, and individuals.
MAJOR PROGRAMMATIC SUPPORT PROVIDED BY The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Anholt Services (USA) Inc. CAF American Donor Fund Compass Group Management LLC Compass Diversified Holdings Lenore Malen and Mark Nelkin The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, Inc. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation New York State Council on the Arts with the support of
Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts
All artwork ÂŠ Peter Williams. Catalogue design by Shona Masarin-Hurst.
Catalogue accompanying February 23 - March 29, 2018 exhibition