Complexities of Social Justice
April 30 - June 15, 2009Randy Williams—The Uneven Terrain of America’s History
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, July 4, 1776
…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
Growing up, I hated my skin color. There were never any positive images to reinforce what it meant to be black—take Dick and Jane, for example. Later when I became older, it became clear to me that what I hated were the misconceptions of what I thought it was to be black. What I thought was wrong with me was really what was wrong with the society that I am a part of.
Randy Williams, March 27, 2009
With good reason, the above guiding principles have come up throughout our yearlong focus, this being our third exhibition to examine issues of social justice, and The Uneven Terrain of America’s History. It is appropriate to bear them in mind as you examine the book constructions and installations of Randy Williams, Professor of Studio Art and Art Education at Manhattanville College, Purchase, N.Y. Williams’ iconography, with its painfully provocative image and object juxtapositions, is like a looking glass that highlights the places where the artist has personally experienced prejudice, but it also exposes prejudices that show up in the generally scar-ridden terrain of American culture’s mass media and its consumerist society. It is with grace, dignity and an impeccable eye that Williams mines the fabric of memory to highlight the persistently rough places. To truly appreciate the context in which he creates, consider Williams as a model collage artist, or rather, a model artist of democracy. His work bridges a connection—not often, if ever, made—between the former and the latter.
Four score and seventeen years ago the advent of collage radically altered the way people perceived depicted reality. Naturalism’s single vantage was replaced by multiple vantages with Cubism; and in 1912, the invention of collage prompted the inclusion of disparate bits of ephemera upon the painted picture, which immediately resulted in the re-imagined single plane as a shared, composite reality. This collective process broadened not only the artist’s palette, it augmented the world’s understanding of visual expression. This occurred at a time when the world still had a keen eye on the development of American Democracy.
The problem with the old realism was that it was highly exclusionary and it required the wholesale acceptance of the one and only “point of view.” Those who have ever studied the science of western perspective know that to truly see the illusion of depicted space in that system, one must first find “the” fixed point on the ground from which the vantage “falls into place.” Collage expanded the view of that prejudiced landscape to include a multiplicity of viewpoints—infinite possibility in art. Thirty years after Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, collage emerged as the “engine for seeing”1 that could actually do justice to the power of his and our forebear’s words of emancipation. To date, collage is the only artistic process that comes close to actualizing the greater complexities of democratic reality, which the single point of view alone could never accomplish. It is from this history and in this sense that Williams’ art foundation springs forth.
Though America and its society have come a long way since the Jim Crow laws, the residual prejudice, the feelings, ideas and institutions associated with them have yet to be completely dissolved. In Williams’ lifetime, he still remembers the scars and the gaps left by segregation. The physical evidence that proliferates his art is a haunting reminder of all that is yet to be overcome. As Williams notes in one of his artist’s statements:
When I was young, I was restrained and incapable of correcting injustices inflicted upon me. Now that I am stronger and have the capacity to view the world differently, I often use my artwork to comment on a personal history.
There is no question that the art of Randy Williams could be anything but his voice among the composite voices of many others. First and foremost, Williams’ art is a first-person study of America’s social and political situation. But as a master collagist, Williams’ work also takes form from an assembly of others, as he specifically works toward exposing prejudice when and where it takes shape and incorporates those stories in the same way he incorporates bits of flotsam and jetsam. All things being equal, the collage-based work of Randy Williams gets its ironic charge from the ways in which he examines America’s history of inclusion and exclusion. It is fitting, literally, that Williams’ orientation toward collage—like democracy—honors all its constituents, even disagreeable ones. Thus, two seemingly separate foci are one and the same, and the challenge of collage is also the challenge of democracy: to see how all constituents fit and flow together during each and every time of assembly. Williams’ work has a decisively rough aesthetic. Make no mistake; his visual unevenness comes out of necessity and the privilege—or the lack thereof—of possession.
I work hard at the [visual] components to make them aesthetically strong or architecturally structured. I think about piecing something together with irregular objects—like my grandfather who was just piecing things together with what was available.
Williams does not separate art from life.
I think I make art every minute of the day—it is all one thing. When I am teaching, I am still working on the things I am thinking about in my art.
Obviously, Williams’ art pulls from his every resource. Within his collage practice, Williams freely mixes intuitive, abstract expressionist and other visceral practices with conceptual ones. There is word play, gestural expression, associative and poetic transformation, amidst erudite pedagogy and concrete observation. Far more than simply being didactic, Williams’ art is a chronicle of a life lived as consistent witness to things which the artist works to change in perception and in action. Many of Williams’ works are resolved, individual pieces, replete with cues for thought, idea comparisons and prompts for investigation. Other pieces are ongoing, in which Williams’ daily ruminations and critical forays result in the extraordinary magazine and book assemblages that proliferate his installations. His art is a holistic practice in which his full expressive capacity is tapped equally. Impressively, Williams is unafraid and unabashed in his pursuit of an iconography that helps us all to see more clearly, where all available strategies are viable, necessary and honored. The resulting humanity is most haunting.
Be forewarned, viewing and considering Williams’ work is tantamount to being swept up by the gravity of an intervening force—what is revealed demands attention, great care, sobering acknowledgement and subsequent work. It is quite easy to find outrage as a result of observing what Williams has experienced and expressed. However, you may be surprised by his own words. He is “not angry” because as he notes, “I have lived long enough that I deserve to be able to make statements about the things I have observed.” This healing process is a way of sharing with others—prompting us, guiding us, if not demanding—the importance of dissolving the institutions of prejudice.
Perhaps, one of the most stunning aspects of Williams’ philosophically prophetic work is the realization that for all its difficult exposure, the work also exudes deep respect, passion and a compelling vision for a more even sociopolitical topography.
Gallery Director, Curator
1. Florian Rodari, Collage: Pasted, Cut and Torn Papers, Skira and Rizzoli, New York, NY, 1988, p. 31.
The content of my artwork explores the tangible experiences of my past as well as the current events that I experience presently. In a very simple manner, my artwork acts as a form of re-constructive surgery. Often I explore elements of my past that were harmful to me as a Black- American. When I was young, I was restrained and incapable of correcting the injustices inflicted upon me. Now that I am older and stronger and have a capacity to view the world differently, I often use my artwork to comment on a personal history that must be illuminated if I wish to proceed with unwavering integrity.
As an artist and a teacher, I find my self excavating repressed memories, and I must be careful not to cover recent experiences with un-toppled soil. My archeological digging often brings back painful memories and I address those meioses with an aesthetic intervention. My art work is never created in anger. I work objectively, often researching areas and experiences of my past that I can only vaguely recollect. Books can remember what the mind cannot, that is why they are always present in my work.
My steadfast ambition as an artist is to influence my daily actions with aesthetic ponderings and to influence my aesthetic vision with my daily activities. To achieve this, I must cultivate a voice that is visual. This voice must possess three essential elements, it must be metaphoric, it must invoke endless questions and it must be vulnerable. To sustain and clarify my voice has become my lifelong mission. I am fortunate that my resources are infinite, as each moment experienced expires from present to past there is always new art to made. For me, living and the process of making art are seamless; I would have it no other way. Making art is my salvation and my burden.
My art is an extension on my self-invention
I use my art as a form of personal research
I use my art as a form of personal protest
I use my art as a platform to step on to see over segregated walls
I use my art as a blindfold to buffer pain
I use my art as a weapon to combat social injustices
I use my art as a tool too justify the truth
I use my art as a tool to justify lies
I use my art to explore my feelings
I use my art to expose my feelings
I use my art to conceal my feelings
I make my art because it is my acquisition of wealth
I use my art as a substitute for religion
I use my art to conceal my fear of living
I use my art to veil my fear of dying
I make my art because when I see the art that I make
I am more likely to forgive the brutal concealment of America’s History
Randy Williams, 2009