Richard Williams, Person to Person 1985. oil on canvas, 122x 183 cm. Collection of Gallery One One One; gift of the artist.
[Note: The following text by Dale Amundson was first published in
1986 in the Gallery One One One catalogue Richard E. Williams
Lady Day. The Lady Day exhibition took place 2-26 March 1986.]
Historically, religious art has been created to glorify,
to educate, and to give spiritual insight. At times, it has also
served to focus attention on the foibles of mankind or to direct
attention to society's imperfections. The works of Richard
Williams of the past year and one-half have to some degree
been involved with all of the above, yet they incorporate ideas
which are very much outside the popular tradition of what
many in the western world are accustomed to consider as
Certainly the religious aspect is there, and it is important,
yet it is interwoven with issues of broader scope. First there is
the matter of relevance. In all of this series, a major concern
is to make the iconography, imagery and content relevant in
a contemporary sense. Secondly, there is the issue of art
history itself, as Williams draws upon and makes references
to traditions of representation and formal approaches from
both religious and secular art of the past several hundred years.
These references are not mere eclecticism. They are entwined
with the imagery in a complex statement that draws upon
sources from religion, art, and contemporary life for its
strength and substance. Thirdly, there is the power of formal
relationships developed in an invisible support structure
contributing to the strength and focus of the work. If one were
never to have encountered the Christian religion and were
totally unfamiliar with its teachings, the communication
through design, form, line and colour would in itself convey
a dramatic message about a significant human experience.
In subject matter, these works focus on the social and
psychological dilemma in which a human being finds herself
as the chosen mate of God. In stark contrast to the usual
depiction of events such as the Annunciation as spiritual and
otherworldly experiences, Williams deals with the more
immediate human emotions embodied in this event, emotions
described or alluded to in biblical accounts, yet rarely allowed
to enter visual interpretations.
The first work in this series is the black and white drawing
entitled Annunciation II, in which a dark figure huddled on
the right, wrapped in a heavy garment, is approached by a
winged figure emerging from a cubist-like space on the left.
Even in this early piece, the concept of dualities appears, a
concept which will surface in all of the later works of the
series. The movement is from the formative area on the left,
separated from the lighter and more open centre section by
a vertical division running the height of the paper, a division
broken by the figure of the angel which extends to the centre
of the page. The vertical division is repeated on the right, but
with more emphasis and only a slight break in the barrier.
The figure of the Virgin on the right exists in her protected
enclave, startled, protecting herself, yet indicating some
response, some degree of approachability. The space between
is electrified by the tension of the design. Visual forces pull
the viewer between the two, locked as they are in their separate
worlds, one advancing, the other recoiling, yet both held firm
by the boundaries that separate them, not so much from each
other as from the uncertain space between. The shift in
treatment of space from left to right moves the viewer from
the immaterial to the real, from the spiritual to the physical.
In between is the arena wherein will be played the drama of
the Annunciation, and of the artist's later work in this series.
In the 1985 drawing Witness, the response of the Virgin
to the angel has become more open, more accepting. The
drama of the moment is heightened by the low vantage point,
and the drawing dissolves into the space below as if it has
been wiped away, or perhaps obscured by a shadowy spectator
in the foreground. The overall feeling is fragile and quiet,
owing to the softness of the brown and white pastel and the
gentleness of the strokes. The emphasis is on the space
between the two figures, a space punctuated by a small
rectangular patch above centre containing the single word
"WITNESS." The word seems to be a thought without sub-
stance, a concept still without form yet somehow shaping the
encounter. It is also an intrusion by a starkly contemporary
pictorial device into an otherwise comfortable traditional
pictorial space, jarring us out of the relaxed reverie with which
we might approach the familiar and expected and into a
questioning of the relationships we project into the imagery
Richard Williams: Studies for Shrine (Ostentatio Gentalium) 24 March 1985. Collection of Gallery One One One; gift of the artist.
In the drawing entitled Shrine, a close-up view of female
genitalia is drawn realistically in coloured pencil and inscribed
with words from the text of the Annunciation, words which
are mostly unintelligible but give the impression of readability.
The viewer is drawn toward the image by the desire to make
sense out of the written words and at the same time is repelled
by the intimacy of the subject and the view. It is perhaps an
analogy to the dilemma of the annunciation itself as a part of
religious doctrine, embodying elements deemed to be divine
as well as those seen to be human or even sinfula contra-
diction that pushes and pulls at the believer and in many respects
parallels the experiences of life in general. In the tug of this
approach/avoidance conflict we encounter another face of the
dualities bound up in the interaction between the human and
the spiritual: that of human sexual response.
The choice of imagery and subtitle of this work underline
the emphasis upon the humanness of the Virgin throughout
this series. Her sexuality is, in a way, proof of her humanity,
and it is in her humanity wherein lies the vulnerability that
allows the mortal being to identify with her experiences.
The vulnerability of the Virgin is an important element
in all of these works. The nature and degree of this vulnerability
varies from work to work, and it is always tempered by a
receptivity, perhaps even an aggressiveness on her part. It is
nowhere more evident than in the painting Person to Person
of 1985 where strong erotic overtones, both in the imagery
and in the historical references contained in the formal
treatment of the subject, act as a counterweight to the other-
worldly/almost mystical qualities of other aspects of the
imagery and formal relationships.
The reclining female figure is painted with a lusciousness
that can only be described as provocative; and surrounded
as she is with the accoutrements of our contemporary youth/
gadget oriented society, she suggests a mixture of innocence
and worldliness that is evidence other humanness. This is in
stark contrast to the saintliness other future, as alluded to by
the figure of the angel appearing at the left edge and the
ambiguity of lights and reflections in the window behind her.
She is not an "idealized" Virgin but a representation of a
living, breathing contemporary woman. The treatment is closer
to the nakedness of Manet's Olympia than to the idealized
representations of much of the history of the depiction of the
Virgin in art. The contemporary references in the imagery
locate the spectator in time and lead to the direct involvement
of the viewer, as if in an immediate situation, putting the
viewer in the picture in much the same way that Manet did.
A magazine labeled Genesis carries a dual reference, first
to the contemporary rock group of that name and second to
the biblical account of the creation, a reference to the concept
of the Virgin Mary as the second Eve.
Williams describes his historical references for this painting
as Manet's Olympia and Velasquez's painting of Venus. The
references are there, in the position of the nude and the figure
with the robe, although the dog at the foot of the couch is
related to a Titian painting. These references serve to
emphasize the earthliness of the woman, but they also refer
to the traditions of representation of the female in Western
art, that of an idealized sexual object, sometimes a goddess,
sometimes a prostitute, yet always embodying elements of
the noble and the base of human emotions. It is perhaps the
depth of these allusions in this painting which makes the
statement particularly poignant. It is a statement of a turning
point, a change of a monumental nature. In a reversal of
biblical history, the Eve who fell from innocence in the
garden will be revived in the Virgin whose faith and absolute
innocence brings a second chance to mankind.
Finally, in assessing the achievements of this series, it is
important to note that, although artists have made the horror
of Christ's death common currency in modern art, it is most
uncommon for an artist to attempt the perhaps impossible
task of making the "miracle" of his conception current.
Williams has taken up this challenge. His avowed purpose is to
make the Annunciation "both sensible as an article of faith
and metaphoric as an inner condition of our modern lives."
In attempting to do so, he draws upon a wealth of traditions
in Western art and religion. Even the concept of the eroticism
of the Virgin can be observed in such early writings as the
12th century homilies of Bernard of Clairvaux. Williams'
originality, however, and the true success of his work, lies in
his ability to synthesize these and contemporary elements into
paintings and drawings which speak profoundly of our
struggles to reconcile seeming contradictions between aspects
of our physical and spiritual beings, and of the down-to-
earth humanness possible in religious teachings.
The Richard Williams
CD-ROM includes information about other Gallery One One One projects: Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2. Gallery Hours: Noon to 4 PM (weekdays only).
TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605
For information please contact Robert Epp