photos by Heather Saitz
Second Skin @ Haight Gallery, Calgary
The Haight Gallery is pleased to present a solo exhibition of watercolour paintings by Calgary-based artist Andrea Williamson. A selection of anonymous portraits, Williamson’s paintings imagine a layered fantasy of fictive reality. Her associative assemblages employ mimetic representation of intuitive force. That is she embraces instinctive pairings and uninhibited ventures into the subconscious. Indecipherable narratives intertwine into a mirage of symbolic synthesis. One face next to another, this body overlapping that and mirrored figures intertwined. The test page portraits juxtapose alternate subjectivities, celebrities, politicians, friends and imaginary characters mingling within a single frame. Flattening difference Williamson’s doubled up doppelgängers parallel the image culture of full search-ability. Her Google goggle contemporaries deny privacy in a subconsciously shameless display of selfhood. Focusing on the burnt out and boring Williamson revisits washed up potentials of pageantry display, model behavior, and hybrid identity politics.
The associative behavior identified within each painting expels social stigma, indulging in a chameleon like shifting of profile. The characters can be this, that and or the other thing with a simple redirection of focus. A presentation of egotistical identity Williamson’s illusive aesthetic examines the inconsistencies and incoherence of digital referent. Anchored within the ambiguity of image culture any missing context is filled with common cultural participation. The empathetic scramble averts subtlety in exchange for a debate of common denominators. Precisely painted out, the scope of self ventures everywhere and nowhere, we are invited to a pleasurable party of one two three and more, someplace that we have all been before.
SECOND SKIN by Andrea Williamson at Haight Gallery
In a speculative aesthetic climate where our attention has shifted from the self-expressive and reflexive space of painting into more dispersed practices, it seems almost alien to find oneself confronted with Andrea Williamson’s watercolors. Yet where painting itself seems to have been put aside in the contemporary context, its critical inquiry has assumed a new central position. The issues of dispersion, the digitalization of the image, and new subjectivities created by the influences of online practices have occupied a new critical space under the light of trending object philosophies and an emerging school of continental realism. Yet if painting itself has been forced to take one step back in this aesthetic context, Williamson’s ubiquitous figurations seem to have taken two steps ahead.
Second Skin, Williamson’s first show at Haight Gallery, seems to simultaneously confront and resist these debates, creating discrete, but expressive image mashups that enter into the dialogue of network theory, whilst maintaining the resolute immateriality of painting itself. Anonymous portraits mysteriously emerge in the vacuous space of the frame, creating a slippage between representation and image that appears as a very deliberate construction of interpretive space. In fact, it is in this very deliberateness of Williamsons renderings that the works seem to directly address the possibility of multiple interpretative modes within the image. Confronting the very polemic of figuration head-on, there is a clear recognition towards the necessity of opening a space of subjective vision, yet by addressing it directly, it also avoids the dialectical problems often opened by the free, interpretive subject. By uniting the works through a common deconstruction of subject, perception and source, Second Skin seems to affirm what the past century has been trying to deny: painting may not be dead after all.
Williamson’s construction of space seems to, at times, suggest an indirect influence by early 20th century movements in painting, perhaps not as much due to the material vocabulary, but more in the desire to flatten the multiple vantage points of our image culture. The planes of vision suggest an inquiry into the mechanics of perception, revisiting the possibility of displaying multiple phenomena, qua multiple subjects, simultaneously. There is an expressive disruption in the works, with subjects, not surfaces, laid forth in a single picture plane, unraveling the complex, rhizomatic hierarchies of image culture. This presents the viewer with a three dimensionality anchored in the realist paradigms of the aesthetic discourses of today. This interplay between real and virtual space, furthermore, emphasizes the breakdown seen between subject and object, where the role of figure gains a universal quality by being disassociated from any definite space of access. Williamson’s blank backdrops reframe the figures to aptly create an intentionally confused space that relies on image hierarchies alone to emphasize the various levels of consciousness present in interpreting subjective phenomena. The viewer is made aware of their own ways of seeing, of the perceptual tendencies that have developed through technological progression (particularly alongside the Internet).
Yet perhaps more astonishing is that the figures, the portraits, if I may, seem to simultaneously elude the critical mode that overtakes much of contemporary practice. Williamson renders her work in a way where the divide between subject and object appears as naturally fitted into a deliberately illusionistic space, which is aware of the multiple levels of perception and the partial awareness that precedes a visual outcome. Questions such as the amalgamation between the virtual and real are brought to surface, but in a way that appears as intuitive and emotive. Perhaps it is within this breakdown between thought and emotion that we locate the subtle magic of Williamson’s watercolors, where subject matter and structure appear in the context of contemporary culture, image circulation, etcetera, yet make absolutely no claim to resolve any of the issues brought along. Instead, the pieces are positioned right in the middle of the discourse, daring to vocalize the precarious question of the viability of the expressive self in the 21st century art world.
Ultimately, within the ephemeral, interpolative space created, it is undoubtedly the resolution of the figure as a central construct that creates the ultimate coherence in the works. Each individual figure appears as contextualized within him or herself, framed by the thematic universality of the Self as construct. Each portrait emerges as precisely that: a representation of someone, anonymous, yet relentlessly negotiated into the expanded context of image as narrative, as a another layer to our constructed reality—one that Williamson seems to disambiguate. The characters seem to fall into a similar narratives as those contextualized through blogs, scrolling texts, newsfeeds, as object by object they appear and disappear in the landscape of our information processes. The background erased, the communality of the subjects is abstracted, creating a series of spaces that are symptomatic of 21st century media culture – yet have, perhaps through the empathetic qualities of Williamson’s medium, evaded the cold, decree of technocentric art making.
Second Skin seems to effectively make the viewer self-aware of the illusionary nature of image and Self, yet in the exploration of the affect of image construction itself, finds a way to unfold the stratified subjectivities of culture. Creating an earnest display of both how we experience the figure in painting, as well as painting as medium in itself, Williamson’s unassuming, yet evocative pieces seductively pull the viewer back into an age-old discourse. Seemingly reenergizing painting with new strategies through sympathetically familiar content, the show comes through as collective experience, a shared subjectivization, in opposition to the difficult dialectics of contemporary work.