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Review: Dot by dot, painter Peter Williams makes points about racial violence

Review: Dot by dot, painter Peter Williams makes points about racial violence
Peter Williams, "Queen: Maxine Waters (detail)," 2018, oil-based enamel and pencil on canvas (Luis De Jesus Gallery)

Peter Williams’ pointillist painting technique, crowding thousands of tiny dots of enamel color within pencil-drawn contours of people, places and things, is not the same as the celebrated one pioneered more than a century ago by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. His look yields a very different feel from the measured, careful tone of those French Postimpressionists.

Brash color is plainly important to the 14 Williams paintings in his Los Angeles debut at Luis De Jesus Gallery, most (though not all) of which explode with pointillist dots. Rather than the scientifically inflected approach of letting pure hues painted on a canvas mix only when they reach an observer’s eye, the Delaware-based artist, 66, uses staccato dots in an almost ritual way.

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Fixated, determined, relentless — those are the descriptors for the pointillism of big, roiling, undulating crowd scenes in works like “Wild Thing, I Think I Love You” and “A Foolish Trick.” A gallery handout also connects the dots to Australian aboriginal art and African scarification patterns. Whatever the sources, the painter’s steadfast focus drives the viewer’s.

Peter Williams, "A Foolish Trick," 2018, enamel on canvas
Peter Williams, "A Foolish Trick," 2018, enamel on canvas (Luis De Jesus Gallery)
Peter Williams, "West Ward and East Ward, Neither at Least," 2018, enamel and pencil on canvas
Peter Williams, "West Ward and East Ward, Neither at Least," 2018, enamel and pencil on canvas (Luis De Jesus Gallery)

In the latter work, a rider mounted on horseback, ancient symbol of heroic triumph, is impossibly balanced on a tightrope before a staring, wide-eyed throng. The rider stands precariously on a variation of a Pan-African flag, a white mask worn over his black face. The foolishness of the balancing trick is transformed into trenchant racial spectacle.

Williams also deftly layers imagery, as in “West Ward and East Ward, Neither at Least.” A uniformed man and an extravagant tree of life — a topsy-turvy house is entangled in its branches — are cargo for a boatful of women who are guiding the vessel across choppy water.

George Washington crossing the Delaware mixes with the Middle Passage of slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies, all while conjuring the prehistoric river goddess Styx, powerful deity of the hellish underworld. Thousands of dots and brightly colored patterns stitch them (and us) together.

Elsewhere, those persistent dots and their colorful capacity for exuberant intensity enliven a marvelous portrait of L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, arms spread wide, eyes glistening and a broad smile across her face. Williams explodes the little dots, too, enlarging the marks into the big red-white-and-blue balloons of a boisterous political rally. As it does for several other portraits of women (actress Pam Grier, activist Patricia Okoumou) that he collectively titles “Queens,” the obstinate pointillist technique is transformed into an unmistakable manifestation of the subject’s committed character.

Peter Williams, "Queens: Maxine Waters," 2018, enamel and pencil on canvas
Peter Williams, "Queens: Maxine Waters," 2018, enamel and pencil on canvas (Luis De Jesus Gallery)

Luis De Jesus Gallery, 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City. Through Dec. 15; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 838-6000, www.luisdejesus.com

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