Like hard edge paintings of flesh blobs? If you answered yes to this question than Baumgartner Gallery has a show for you. Abstract painter Aaron Williams has made no less than six of these genre works for the Chelsea art viewer to contemplate.
Now, I’ve thought a lot about this work over the past week, and it still took me an inordinate amount of time to put together a post. Lately, abstraction leaves most of us feeling as though we have few words to describe what we are seeing. We’re all expected to understand the rules of formalism, so talking about what is considered easy or redundant is out, and the fashionable content of abstraction is supposed to be intentionally vague; it makes a point, but not too much of a point because than it would be boring. Saying anything of significance about this kind of painting is the equivalent of telling your mother you got laid the night before. It’s always too much information.
This sort of shit is really annoying but you pretty much have to ignore it in order to actually form some thoughts on the work. Williams makes a task like this fairly easy because he makes painters paintings that are too specific to be shaped by formalism alone. In other words, there is more formalism and content to talk about in this work than the average abstract painting. In theory, this would be the stuff most people go out of their way to talk about, but in practice, AFC is the show's first review. I have no explanation for this.
As one of the most engaging and complex works in the exhibition, The Judge, defines what good abstract painting is all about. Williams has a deep understanding of surface and light, his paint handling controlled and confident. But formalism is merely the veneer for the content of these paintings. The Judge suggests that the weight of human experience is balanced on something unseen or unknown. There is a sense that judgment is impending and that it will come from a source outside of us, and greater than us. The irony here, if there is one, is that the most immediate judgment will come from the average viewer.
While all the works in the show demonstrate a high degree of painting skill, the most successful are those that most specifically depict a moment of decision that leads to transfiguration. The largest piece in the show, Black Mirror: A Time Line of Recent School Shootings, is an intensely dark and powerful portrait of children killed in a school shooting. Inert and fleshy, an amorphous shape represents the transformed bodies of children and is backed by thick enamel architectural forms which carve out the sky line. It is true that Williams does not take a moralist stand in the work, and has in fact said “Thematically, my paintings exist in a space of ambivalence where the conflicts don't include a moral certainty on which to be decided” but, I should note that I don’t particularly see much ambivalence in this work. The subject matter is simply too loaded to present all values equally. To my mind this work depicts a calm within the storm. It isn’t ambivalence, it’s contradiction.
And this, is what makes good painting. It is struggle, it is conflict, and it is the attempt to make sense of ambiguity. There are no right answers, there is only the humble attempt to find them.