On the occasion of the exhibition New Paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Michael Williams, writer and curator Francesca Gavin posed a few questions to the artist about his creative process and what’s behind this new production of works.
FRANCESCA GAVIN Tell me about what you find interesting about the overlaps, differences, advantages and disadvantages of the relationship between painting and photography?
MICHAEL WILLIAMS I look at photographers and they seem so cavalier and to be able to sort of walk around and spend their days doing whatever they like. So I’m jealous of them. Us painters need to put in the hours in our studios away from the world, outside of society. We become these kinds of rejects. Photographers, at least in my imagination, can be social and spend their time going to see things and places, which they find interesting and their work just bubbles out of that. And of course my jealousy extends to their ability to look at something and have that be their entire process, it’s just the fun parts. And even though they do so little they get a lot of credit for being intelligent, for looking at the right things in the right way. As painters, all of our handwork just becomes barriers that need to be parsed and seen through in order to find and get to something as simple and pure as the economy of delivery of meaning and content which a photograph is privileged with. So with these new paintings I take the aspects of photography that I envy and steal them for painting.
FG What first ignited your interest in using digital technology in the creation of your paintings? What is the conceptual drive?
MW At first, it was not a conceptual drive. It was just that I realized there is another way for me to produce images, to remove these images from my mind. And so, of course, I used it. And then later, I saw what I’d done on the computer and realized I’d just made a bunch of paintings. This was a good treat, a good surprise. But this was with the paintings I make in Photoshop. These new paintings are very different but in some similar way, I also stumbled upon them.
FG What interests you about surface?
MW My wife told me about an American foodie who was talking on the radio about Mexican tacos and saying “a good taco needs a good tortilla, a good salsa, and a good filling.“ Of course this is true, but more importantly they all have to sing together. So for a painting, what I think it needs is a good surface, good colors, and a good picture. But like the taco, it needs to transcend all of this. What interests you about tortillas? A good one is delicious.
FG Tell me how drawing informs what you do?
MW I’m tethered to drawing. I’m not sure I know how to make a painting without drawing. I occasionally try to paint without any drawing coming before because I think of it as a weakness that needs to be attacked. But I always come running with tears in my eyes back to my drawings.
FG You’ve said that the content of your work is what emerges from your psyche. Can you tell me more – is it freeform? Imagination?
MW When I’m drawing onto a blank sheet there are two ways I approach it. Either I just begin to draw, and one line informs the next and something emerges or not. Or the second way where I sit patiently, sometimes maybe close the eyes and relax a bit, and pray for an image to come to me. These sorts of drawings can occasionally feel almost perfect if they are delivered complete. Whereas a drawing that I have to fight for, if it works, can feel like a victory.
FG Tell me about your color palette in the current work?
MW My color palette is always more or less the same. I make one decision and then another, I don’t usually make color plans.
FG What interests you about scale? The original paintings are much smaller than the final inkjet version I believe?
MW What interests me is the process, almost magical, in which I am able to make a large painting by making a small one. As if I am a small painter inside of the torso of a monstrous puppet painter whose motions I control. But it isn’t instantaneous of course. What I enjoy is that I’m basically turning painting into drawing. In that I get to paint in a very “no pressure“ way and, if it works for me in the ways I need it to, I can decide that it should be in conversation with other paintings I’ve made at a larger scale. In addition to this, there are aesthetic attributes that emerge when the small studies are enlarged, something I like very much. The small weave of the canvas becomes large and looks more like burlap, the edges of the photographed painting, which are sometimes included in the printed painting, have a shadow and a curve which is grander than a painting that scale would normally have, and a small hesitant brush stroke now looks filled with bravado.
FG Your approach toward the body in the current puzzle paintings feel sometime reminiscent of a collage or coloring book. This dissection of figure and face into planes and shapes. What do you find interesting about that approach?
MW The way in which I make the study drawings for the puzzle paintings – something I invented many years ago – is a way for me to draw and not be exactly sure what it is I’m drawing; since I’m drawing through a kind of matrix of collage and line. This way I find forms that are new to me and this is exciting. Also, it’s a process of going from representation towards abstraction: a sort of deterioration of our seen world. And I think there is something pessimistic about that, like going blind. But then the paintings are very colorful. People have sometimes said to me that they look like they are so much fun to make, which I’ve always kind of resented because painting is actually a slow labor. But I saw one of my puzzle paintings recently, which I hadn’t seen in some time, and I was struck by how basically jubilant it looked. So what do I know? They must be a mixed soup of pessimism and optimism.
FG What interests you about faces? Are you drawing from life in the original paintings? Why these specific largely male faces?
MW “What interests you about faces?“ is a kind of a nightmare question because it’s very straightforward and should be easy to answer but then it’s also very embarrassing because I think, “oh Jesus am I really just interested in something as basic as faces?“ But here we are. I am interested in faces. Fine. I think it must be because I want to connect with other people and I look to their faces to try to find a way to do this. I’ve made these paintings of men here as a way to explore the different options for how to be a man; as I see them. Some options are not included here, but these are the good options, maybe.
FG How do you title your work?
MW I used to keep a list of funny ideas for titles, from bits of conversation, or pieces of language found in advertising or TV shows or anywhere really. I still do it, but now sometimes I prefer to be more literal, like “Orange Puzzle Painting,“ “Black Inkjet Painting,“ “Vertical Composition,“ “Permanent Green,“ and occasionally these literal titles can be a sort of a double entendre.