In 1993 it was bleak in NYC. I mean economically dark. Galleries were closing. Careers had dried up, artists, good ones, were leaving the city. And painting was the last thing that anyone wanted to look at – particularly abstract painting. That year the Whitney presented a different kind of art – art that didn’t look like or act like the art that had been presented over the last 15 years. It was art about worldly issues – angry art – overlooked art – and art about life – the hard parts of life that are ignored when working in rigorous color combinations, second generation conceptual abstraction and expressionistic narcissism. And it broadened our ideas of what art might do.
Sue Williams’ work was hard, real and personal in ways that art hadn’t been during the money hunger 80s. She wasn’t interested in presenting the meaning of a brush stroke or the pentimenti of a worked surface. It was confession and complicity that interested Ms. WIlliams. These paintings spoke harshly and bluntly about difficult and consequential problems. Her paintings looked like drawings torn from a diary. Her imagery elided the personal and the political. And they were a real thumb in the eye when encountered for the first time. These images made us bring our vision back to earth in a visceral way. This wasn’t expressionism – not in the way we had seen it. Rather these images were hard, harsh and truthful – something painting, particularly abstract painting, was not doing, and maybe had no business doing. And if that was the case – then we had to rethink the meaning of painting – what it should do and what it could do.
“Clinging relentlessly to the role of bearer of bad news, for example, she calls to mind Cady Noland, another diehard pessimist. Like Noland, Williams treats the spectrum of interactive behavior today as symptomatic of a broad-based conspiracy of violence. But where Noland places herself in a position of unquestionable moral superiority over her subjects, Williams charges her work with the guilt of long codependency. Williams’ work also picks up where the stream-of-consciousness blue-collar anarchy of Mike Kelley’s rambling, conspiratorial texts left off a few years ago. And she helps herself to generous dollops of the idea of collective victimization explored in Barbara Kruger’s all-purpose use of the term “we.” Unlike Kruger, however, whose work always suggests some sort of authorial distance, Williams never strays far from what she herself has tasted and touched; and compared to Kelley, she is relatively little interested in class rage. Rather, she is committed to subject matter that most artists reared in a male-dominated society still refuse to go near: the ritualistic need experienced by many of us, both male and female, to build ourselves up by tearing women down. Such violence is not ancillary or saved for special occasions, but is part of the social contract. This strikes Williams as so unspeakably sad she just can’t seem to stop laughing.” [Dan Cameron on Sue Williams]
Nancy Spero: All women carry this inherent knowledge, that we can be raped, that we are in danger. We’re both figurative artists and very personal, although my work comes from an entirely different impetus. I have wanted always to override the personal, to step into a more public arena. But it was also this reluctance to turn attention to myself.
Sue Williams: I didn’t want people to know my personal victim history. But this show was explicitly about violence. And I got such a reaction. I started talking to women. I was so surprised to find out how many people have had to deal with incest, have been molested or raped. I couldn’t believe it. People almost take it in stride. And that’s the way it is, it’s always been this way. This is a horrible thing that I went through. I had no awareness of my rights as a person, I did the classic thing. It’s so humiliating. People would ask me, “He beat the hell out of you and you went back to him?” I thought that this person loved me and that this was my home. I didn’t like it, but I was used to it.
“Sue Williams has taken doodling to remarkable places, the grimmest areas a mind and body can go, or rather the doodle has taken her and her audience there. Tidbits of her autobiography—that she was physically abused by slimes—are by now well-known. In her paintings trauma is viewed with both objectivity and a dark mirth. Part of their power, why they have worked, is in their presentation of a type of comedy no one had really seen before—what Americans are now afraid to call black humor—especially from a woman, and in what medium? Painting? The bluntest approach to picturemaking in a long time.
The particular settings of Williams’ aesthetic violence continue to be freefloaty surfaces: the canvas as bedroom/ notepad/brain, with no furniture. Figures masturbate and horse around in cruelty. Her new paintings—even without Williams’ familiar writing—still have the fresh informality of her older works. But if they seem to have gone mute, the images alone, in flat constellation, show and tell each other their sex parts: lots of leg, haunch, and butthole. The figures are displayed in precarious repose, in weird outfits, psycho tops, testicles drooping below the hemlines of faceless figures in ultragirly dresses. A horse’s narrow head atop a bloated body, a vagina resting high on the crotch with pubic hair like parentheses. I’d like to say they look like the distracted sketches of an evil fashion designer.” [Benjamin Wiessman on Sue Williams]