In all the phases of her painting, the American painter Sue Williams has remained true to one principle. While she professes dissolving form in abstraction, she simultaneously allows a corporeality to emerge through the gestural brush strokes against a monochrome background. The exhibition in the Secession assembles works from the last ten years, making it possible to trace the painterly development in Sue William’s work.
In the feminist discussion of the 1980s, painting did not really feature as a terrain for women. Painting was dealt with as the patriarchal domain par excellence, and the criteria for judging painting were in fact so strongly subjected to male power of definition that many women found it better, or even strategically more clever, to work in fields that were still considered largely unoccupied at that time (photography, video, performance). Sue Williams made use of painting right from the beginning. Ultimately by carrying feminist issues into painting as well, she insisted on painting as a métier not inherently suitable for women.
The early pictures, created in the mid-1990s, have an affinity with the genre of trivial picture stories—comics and caricatures. With undisguised rage, they show scenes of violence, sexual transgressions and abuse against women and children as a kind of labyrinth of all obscenities. Whereas the motifs by themselves frequently do not clarify to what extent the scenes of domestic violence are merely traced and sarcastically left on display, in combination with fragmentary sentences and commentaries, they unequivocally bear witness to commitment.
In the beginning, Sue Williams explicitly named her themes, undoubtedly also to find a clarity in her formulations herself. Over the course of her artistic praxis, in which her contents are now named with equal explicitness, her interest shifted more to the gesture of painting, brush stroke and color. In the late 1990s, the depicting moment in Williams’ work gave way to an increasingly growing abstraction, although she retained the rhythm and movement of her earlier paintings. The works created now no longer contain any conceptual information to explain themselves.
Since Williams has taken the words out of her visual vocabulary, she concentrates her attention exclusively on the contents of painting technique. In comparison with the earlier comic strip-like works, now it is the expressive, colored brush stroke that becomes an object against the empty background. Her new paintings are dominated by forceful lines, broken by an allusion to human anatomy, often in neon colors, sometimes using no more than three or four colors. In their vulgarity, the sometimes phallus-shaped lines are not only in contrast with the sublime that was sought by representatives of abstract expressionism, for example, but also subject the patriarchal power structures that traditionally dominate abstract painting to an ironical treatment with a high painterly quality at the same time.
The title Art for the Institution and the Home refers on the one hand to the balancing act between job and housework that many women still have to perform, but on the other hand, the title also formulates the reproach that painting is often confronted with, that it is namely no more than a decorative gesture. The extent to which Sue Williams assumes a critical position with the title, remains hanging in the balance.
The exhibition is organized in cooperation between the Secession and the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM). After the Secession, the exhibition will travel to Valencià.