Monday, May 23, 2011

Sarah Williams: Painting the New American Landscape

The painted landscape can serve as the locus of a cultural identity in both a productive capacity (forming a conception around which others coalesce) and a "reflective" capacity (re-presenting the conception of a culture already shared by its members). Beyond, or within, this cultural meaning of landscape, the composition may create a narrative or allegory that subverts or supports the cultural message communicated. By working within a culture's shared conception of itself, an artist is able to more readily communicate the deeper messages and meanings at work in the painting. This dynamic is evident in the painting below.

St. Joseph, by Sarah Williams, 2011, oil on canvas, 24" x 24", in private collection.
Image reproduced with consent of the artist.

Sarah Williams, a Houston-based artist, paints scenes of modern America. She often paints night scenes, whose lack of life and serene lighting impart a sense of stillness and timelessness.  At the same time, this lack of life and the lack of uniquely-identifying features maintain an ambiguity that would allow any American to identify with the scenes. As other critics have pointed out, it would be misguided to read into this a commentary on "the generic flavor of American life." (1)  Instead, her choice of imagery is a result of her "connection to the rural Missouri where she grew up." (1) Williams' intimate familiarity with the imagery in addition to its ambiguity allow her paintings to have both an immediacy of communication to American audiences and a narrative depth.

In St. Joseph, Williams constructs a narrative by shielding us from one area of the canvas while leading us to the other. With the distinct associations of the two areas involved in this narrative, the work becomes an allegory of modern American life, with its division between a superficial and dizzying external world and the comfortable and placid internal world of the home.

A non-specific ice-cream store divides the landscape between the commercial area of business and capitalism and the residential realm of family, which assume particular associations within the silence of the night. The bright neon shop signs humming with energy cut through the still darkness, but the signs appeal to no audience--aside from us, to whom the signs are illegible.  The energy of the signs makes the lack of human life and energy all the more noticeable, evoking feelings of emptiness or isolation akin to those experienced when alone in a city late at night or very early in the morning. But this isolation may not be the ultimate message of the painting, instead it provides the antithesis.

We are shielded from that isolation by the ice-cream store, which is painted with a familiarity and intimacy opposed to the fuzzy uncertainty of the distant shops. In front of the ice-cream store two arrows lead us to the right side of the painting, a device analogous to the rivers or roads of traditional landscape paintings, which were used to engage the viewer and guide their eye. Instead of the isolating loneliness of a deserted commercial district we are led to a comfortable residential district illuminated by a soft and welcoming light. Instead of the energy without life seen on the left side, we are led to a place of life without energy, or alternatively, a place of rest. This calming and comforting effect of the right-hand side is heightened through its contrast with the isolation shown on the left. 

Painting realistic landscapes with imagery familiar to her American audience, Sarah Williams is able to construct narrative and allegory in works which at first glance may appear to some to be simply reproductions of a modern American experience.  However one conceives of this modern experience, the emotions and associations evoked by its imagery are intimately familiar to those who experience it, (modern Americans). This intimacy allows for the imagery to communicate to its audience on a deeper level, as Sarah Williams does. In St. Joseph, Williams goes beyond representing the modern American experience and uses the visual language of this experience to create narrative that contrasts the emotions inherent in it.
Thanks to Sarah Williams for permission to reproduce the image of St. Joseph for this blog.
More information about the artist and her work is available on her website:

Sarah Williams received her BFA, Summa Cum Laude, from William Woods University in 2006 and her MFA from the University of North Texas in 2009. Since that time, she's already had six solo exhibitions in addition to her many group exhibitions.

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