There is pleasure in slowness. One is reminded of this when viewing the subtly luxurious movements, textures, and layers of line and color that arch across Rachel Eulena Williams’ paintings. Williams’ work does not traffic in immediacy, and connections are joyfully gleaned in a process akin to tiny synapses of recognition sparking one after another as our eyes traverse her dense topographies. Her cut canvases and use of various objects—linen, canvas, rope, hammocks, board and more—are connected via rich, often monochromatic ranges of paint in fiery oranges, jammy purples and blues, and skin-bruised browns that reflect the environment of Williams’ native Florida.
In many ways—and in the works that will appear in the artist’s solo booth for Canada gallery at this year’s Independent—Williams is removing the connotations of historic power that so many of the materials in her work denote. Rope as a means of binding control, hammocks signifying the leisure of the white post-war nuclear family, and recently, flowers, which are as much a sign of peace as of death. In her work, rope turns to thick, braided hair; circles of various sizes are stationary satellites that rotate our view: “I like the idea of the material having historic value, holding violence, and using it casually. I like taking that power out of it,” says Williams.
This deposing of power is performed via Williams’ repetitive compositions and her commanding use of color, which traces a path back to masters like Ed Clark and Howardena Pindell, but also aligns her with the likes of the contemporary artists Raque Ford and Eric Mack. Williams, along with Ford and Mack contribute to the lineage of black abstraction’s profound confidence in eschewing western color theory for something more interesting, more fertile, more alive.
Take Petal (2021) for instance, which manages to cheerfully hold color ranging from red to black. “It starts out with a lot of pieces that have a lot of information, in order to produce volume and produce scale and produce color. It’s about showing an environment and its fullness,” Williams says. Over the pandemic, her environments have become increasingly contained, more sculptural paintings than painted sculpture, though she still draws on both mediums to collage together her pieces. Her relatively rectangular and tondo compositions confront the painting structure, using the stretcher as pedestal rather than frame.
Flowers bloom on the surface of several works that will appear at the Independent, petals churning like windmills or cut from the surface of the paintings. They add movement that other elements snake around, loosely avoiding the white walls visible through the canvas’s gaping holes. Along with the flower, Williams has also repeated the screenprint of a woman’s head throughout several past pieces, most recently in her solo show Tracing Memory at Canada from December 2020–January 2021. The woman acted as a symbol, destabilizing our notions of abstraction and perhaps, playfully nudging viewers’ insatiable appetite for black figuration.
Williams’ use of color is her power, bringing her painting to life with gradients and floods so visceral it is easy to follow one of her many lines across the paint for several seconds before realizing you are trapped in a pool of color, a luminescent sinkhole. In past works, she achieved this using gleaming reds, yellows, and oranges that streamed across the canvas, rope, and wood of her compositions, creating foreground and background, line and loss. Now, such as with Out of Technicolor (2021), murky blues and blacks are employed, connoting a bodily presence and the ways in which individuals are a composition themselves, each of myriad color and hue.
Engaging with the ideas of the body in Williams’ work may be new, but she has always been concerned with engaging space, considering how much control is achieved through a manipulation of the environment we view art in, and that we view ourselves in. It is something that Williams has interrogated from the beginning with her unconventional shapes, colors, and textures that rove the gallery wall. And something she continues to consider with this new work, which somehow reveals less of the wall, while revealing much more.