Michael Williams: The Truth about Painting
Over the last decade, Los Angeles–based artist Michael Williams has created paintings known for their layered imagery, brilliant color, and use of airbrushing and inkjet printing. His large-scale works often begin as drawings either on paper or on the computer screen before they are printed or transferred to canvas and then embellished with oil paint. The narrative bent of Williams’s work reveals a dark sense of humor about daily life, often exploring the role of the painter as observer. Wickedly funny allegories merge with abstract painting as free-form amoebic shapes frequently fill the entirety of his canvases. The resulting paintings offer a dense and absorbing terrain of color and form.
“Williams is unafraid to appear foolish, emotional, naked. That is the risk in making art that takes particulars and then projects universals onto them,” Dan Nadel recently noted in Artforum. And that observation is apt. Williams’s adventurous spirit and unfettered imagination, bolstered by his skill as a painter, allow him to freely explore a range of techniques, emotions, and subject matter in his work. Last December, while Williams was producing a suite of new paintings and a series of drawings for his first US solo museum exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, Suzanne Hudson had the opportunity to visit with him in his Los Angeles studio. They spoke about painting, the use of allegory in his work, Instagram culture, our endless digital feeds, and much more.
Matthew Newton, Editor-in-Chief, Storyboard
Michael Williams: For a few years, I’ve been making paintings that are inkjet printed. I’ll paint on top of them sometimes—and sometimes not. Usually, the shows have had a combination of paintings that were reattacked after the printing part and others that weren’t. For this Carnegie show, I first thought to include paintings that are just printed. But I’ve decided to also show some puzzle paintings, which are oil paintings, and a selection of drawings for the puzzle paintings.
Suzanne Hudson: How do the drawings relate to the paintings?
MW:They were made as studies. But at a certain point I realized that I liked them as drawings in their own right. I started making them back in 2010, but I stopped and didn’t come back to them until around two years ago. I basically take a photocopy of a drawing I’ve already made and draw a puzzle piece on it with pencil. Then I cut it out, usually where I think it would be interesting to see, say, letters coming down, and glue it down before redrawing missing forms. It’s sort of like a game.
SH: I really like the idea of the puzzle. It’s as if somehow all these things can fall apart and come together, but within a particular structure.
MW: Right. I’m also, maybe, trying to find a way to represent a feeling about the world or a subject. Almost the way artists like Maria Lassnig, or J. F. Willumsen, or Charles Burchfield distort or stylize their subjects to apply some kind of emotion to it.
SH: It’s interesting to say that relative to the black-and-white drawings because I think that color is often so important to that process of distortion. Do you think about it differently here? Not just because they are drawings but also because you aren’t making them in color?
MW: They’re schematics in preparation for laying down color in a painting. It’s like a blueprint. But that’s an interesting question. If I was making these with color … I don’t know, the color might get in the way of the rules of how they’re done. Color is so emotional. I think I might be persuaded by the colors to do these images differently. When I do them in black and white, on such a small scale, and with a pen, I’m able to find feelings and forms that aren’t necessarily personal to me.
SH: The concept of a painting show without paint would have been interesting, but this scenario forces the issue of why that would have mattered in the first place: what difference one mode versus another would be, as a strategy, and also as a painting. I mean, even taking their respective surfaces: oil looks so much shinier and uneven, almost like patchwork in the sense of the puzzle-piece imagery, compared to the printed canvases, which catch the light much more uniformly.
MW: I do think there’s something nice about having paintings that have competing agendas in the same space. I usually say that they’re fighting each other. I’m trying to find a better way to say it.
SH: Do they contradict each other, for you?
MW: Yeah, I think they do. The interesting thing is to try to live with those contradictions, for them to survive and mount a partnership. There’s a lot of romance about painting—the painter struggling in his studio, devoted to his medium. I can subscribe to that sort of thinking at times, but I do like that printing insults painting, in a way.
SH: Because it means that the one replaces the other, or could? The printing is its own kind of process, which you open up and ultimately legitimize. The works themselves seem to picture this as a kind of method that becomes a willful aesthetic.
MW: Yeah, printing has no time for all of that baggage about what it means to be a painter. I totally enjoy the whole process and the “real fake” aspect of them. I’ve developed a taste for the way they look, the surface, and I enjoy them as paintings. I don’t know exactly how to say it, but I see them as more than stand-ins for paintings. The new printer I’m using, it’s printing with latex. So now they really are printed paintings.
SH: What do you do before you print them? Do you prime them somehow?
MW: I get pre-primed canvas—like, a fifty-yard roll. The roll comes on a two-and-a-half-inch tube, but the printer I use takes only three-inch tubes, so I had to build a contraption to reroll the canvas onto the larger tubes. Then I have somebody drive them over to the printer’s place, and they print them all up, and I get them back.
I remember the first time I did it. The unveiling was exciting. It’s kind of lost its pizzazz, but I’ll have the roll-up and I’ll just roll it out and see five big prints really quickly.
SH: The colors must be a surprise. Even if they’re the colors that you intend, they’re so different on this support than they are on a backlit screen.
MW: Yeah, they are different. Sometimes things work out well, and sometimes they really need me to paint on top of them.
SH: Some of these printed effects look like different kinds of brushstrokes. I know they’re native to the technology of Photoshop, but they still have this uncanny sense of spray paint or a mark that seems tighter, more focused than a brush.
MW: The digital-imaging environment is built after our real environment, to a degree. I mean, there are all these other tools you can use that are sort of magic—for example, the icon for your paintbrush is a leaf, and when you paint a line, it’s a string of leaves. Or you can paint washes of patterns. I’m usually not doing those sorts of things, but I have. It is an amazing system to paint with, because you don’t have to obey the standard physics of painting. You make a brushstroke on top of another one and later you can move it below. You can create false histories.
SH: The works are really complicated for that reason. Looking at them, I know how they’re made, or assume I know how they’re made or how a section is working, but what I come up against is that I’m so habituated to looking at painting that’s made with oil or acrylic that I expect what I am seeing to accord with those material properties. How paint adheres to or produces a surface has everything and nothing to do with these printed paintings. The way that layering works here is so complex, especially in the spots where it looks like what is closest to the picture plane is recessing.
It makes me think of Charline von Heyl and how she introduces insecurity by reversing figure and ground, adding backgrounds after establishing the ostensible foregrounds. But your work is different in conjuring these effects in a way that subverts the tradition of illusionistic painting even as it refers everywhere to ideas about picture making and images and their becoming abstract. But I keep wanting to read them with this old set of criteria.
MW: Right. The actual physics of how these were made is just so straightforward. It was just one wash of material across the thing. And the arena, the place where the action happened, in one sense it’s with me sitting at a computer dragging images around, and in another it’s over at the printer’s with the huge HP whirring and blinking for twenty minutes as the canvas passes through it. There’s a series of events. And then if I paint on them there is a kind of investigatory imaging-finding process. Whereas when I leave them “only printed” they’re often more like straightforward allegorical paintings.
SH: How do you think of allegory? In this work [Truth About Painting 1, 2017], do you intend a sort of studio, process-related allegory? Why the paint tube and supplies, and even the art store that appears in earlier works?
MW: Well, I guess these are the symbols I’m totally absorbed in. I suppose you can talk about any subject using any other subject as a metaphor. But normally I like to use the subjects of the process. If I’m going to make a picture about the truth about painting, then there’s a sort of logic to this, but at the same time, it’s maybe meant to be illogical or too complex to be understood.
Do you know what jenkem is?
MW: Jenkem is a drug that African street children supposedly make out of feces and urine. I like the idea of a total system, and I think that art is one, where we can generate and learn internally. Like the way my paintings, these products of my body, can have an effect on me. I also always think about how painting feels somehow related to smearing your waste on the wall.
SH: It’s an origin story, for sure, like the mark on the cave wall. It may be a more scatological version, but still it involves someone making a mark, which becomes exterior to the self, and then an objectified guarantee of subjectivity.
MW: I think about cave painting a lot. It’s amazing that painting becomes its own relic. You immediately create this by-product of the creation. I imagine there was music and dance happening in those caves, too, but there’s just no relic of that. Painting leaves its own corpse behind for us to deal with. You make something and then you’re confronted with it. You have to come to terms with it. It’s a way of externalizing whatever is going on internally, and a way of learning about ourselves because we have that product of self that we can see immediately.
SH: [Art historian] Whitney Davis has been writing about cave painting in relation to modernism.1 When did the cave painter recognize the pictorial value of the inscription? It’s about the alchemical moment when the material becomes the picture and then what that shift in recognition means. When is a sign intended?
MW: One of the things that’s happening in this “jenkem” painting is that the prescription label affixed to the paint tube has my name on it, but it’s a fantasy version of my name. I didn’t hyphenate my name with my wife’s name, and on the painting I do. All the other paint tubes in the meeting—it’s sort of an AA meeting or something like that—are kind of suffering. In a way, they’re all suffering, being punctured through their chairs. And this one tube in the middle is victoriously spouting.
SH: This is a different question entirely, but how do you decide how much white to leave around the compositions? Some of them obviously have elements that extend beyond the rectangular parts, and then some are better behaved.
MW: It’s just a formal thing.
SH: Do you live with the rolls for a while, though, before you decide, or do you know right away?
MW: I’ll mess around with it a little bit, but it’s usually pretty quick. I lay the canvases on the ground and use long strips of wooden lattice to try out different framings. I move them around a bit, come to a decision, and have a stretcher built to those dimensions. For some of the ones I am working on now, I’m painting on top of them a lot. I had some that were misprinted too close together, so there wasn’t enough space between images to stretch them without cutting into another image. But then I ended up stretching them anyway. I liked having one picture hanging off the side, and then I started re-creating that on purpose.
SH: We’re so accustomed to the image-stream swipe, where there’s always another picture. An image in isolation is hard to imagine, because there are so many others before and after … it becomes part of a narrative flow.
MW: I always find myself playing on my phone, swiping in between two images and just holding it there. I like to zoom in as far as I can on things. You need to keep your fingers on it or it’ll slip back. And I wonder, can I keep this going even further? We are so inundated in images now. We’ve seen it all. But sometimes I have the urge to Google images of paintings I know don’t exist. Ironically, it’s frustrating that technology hasn’t managed to properly externalize our mind’s eye.
SH: It’s like we’re back to the cave. Everything is visual. It’s all image. There’s no text, just Instagram culture, where we communicate through pictures, through endless feeds.
MW: Right, but for them, the picture was such an aberration, and for us, it’s just …
MW: Yeah. I just rewatched that Werner Herzog movie about the caves [Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010] last week. There’s one part in it where they do carbon dating, and there’s a scene of animals, and part of the scene was painted 5,000 years before the other part [fig. 9]. It’s so insane. Even given the 5,000 years, there are only twenty or so paintings that survive. Did they only make a painting once every few generations? Or were they everywhere, all along the riverbanks, and these are just the few that remain?
SH: It’s so hard to know. Destruction is not only the product of forces of erosion or time. If you look back at Carnegie Internationals, Whitney Biennials, or an Artforum issue, you realize how much is lost even closer to our own time. Even if it survives, it is winnowed. What is worth preserving? And for what?
MW: The destructive force of changing tastes. There’s just so much now.
SH: Today everything’s saved, and nothing’s looked at. It’s just archived.
MW: The cloud is full.
SH: It’s raining images. Is this where your media imagery comes in? What’s with these HBO paintings?
MW: Well, at first, I just wanted to make a painting of the image you see when an HBO show starts: the logo extending out of the static. Then I realized I could do it by first making a bad Jackson Pollock painting. I just couldn’t resist doing that.
SH: How are you thinking of all these new works relative to place—or to being new to Los Angeles this year?
MW: I think, in the past, I wouldn’t even have addressed that question, but it’s become clear to me that things have changed by being here. I find that interesting and exciting. I don’t think I would have made those HBO paintings in New York. There was something about feeling like I’m in hiding that allowed me to make them.
Also, I have this theory, for whatever reason, that the farther west you go, the more precise painting becomes—if you think of, say, Georg Baselitz versus someone like Takashi Murakami. Some of the things I’ve made recently are a little more precisely done than they might have been in New York. Rather than follow my natural inclination to run away from that, I’m trying to investigate it a little bit, realizing that I’m not more powerful than my environment. I think it’s hard to find a painter in Los Angeles who’s really scrubbing around with dirty paint.
SH: I think of Laura Owens perfecting the cleanest colors, the most epic drop shadow, the most perfect fake. It works. Instead of facility being the thing you run away from, it’s the thing that can maybe undermine itself from the inside.
MW: I’m talking more about painting without knowing what you’re doing. The way a painting is painted, whether it’s sloppy or controlled, in theory it speaks about the painter and about what the painter believes. I think that different attitudes of paint application indicate and promote different attitudes toward life, liberation, politics.
I’ve been living under this idea that making a loose sort of painting means that I’m freer, happier, more in tune with nature, more of an animal, more in my body, which is what I want to be, rather than a totally intellectual being, overthinking things. Perhaps we become more in our minds the farther west we go? That seems contrary to stereotypes about LA though [laughs].
I guess I’m trying to figure out if that whole idea is a falsehood, if I can paint anal retentively and yet be relaxed in life. I don’t know exactly which paintings Martin Kippenberger made here, but when Michel Majerus came to LA for a year, the paintings he made here had a very different vibe.
SH: And then the question becomes the extent to which any of this is visible in the painting, not in the subject but in the process—the how more so than the what.
MW:I try to use the different meanings inherent in the mood of a brushstroke, and to combine them in ways that divorce me from the paint. So there are attitudes in the paint or combinations of modes that become something larger than simple self-expression.
The German painters I like are mostly from a time when there was so much suffering going on socially, and their paintings were liberating them somehow, through aggressive brushwork and difficult subjects. Maybe when life gets easier, the paintings get a little more subdued or … I don’t know. My idea is to not be threatened by that and to see it through, and to see places as a filter, or another way to move through my paintings.
SH: Like in this one [Yard Waste, 2017]?
MW: That painting is about me dealing with becoming a Californian. Some of these houses are based on ones near where I live. Sometimes I’ll save a JPEG of the work file before I finish it, with parts that are still just the scan of a drawing on paper. That happened here. It became the void where a figure would have been. I like to find opportunities to use marks I wasn’t considering to be part of the painting when I made them. There would have been a figure, so this would have been covered up. The utilitarian marks are in a way more authentic than anything that I would do intentionally.
Then I was thinking about earthquakes, the earth opening up here, but also just this absent figure—a dark, Californian void figure.
SH: The form is also like the shadow cast by a figure or some sense of projection into it, even as it’s a hole. The works are so considered as formal problems. For all of your refusals, you are so steeped in the history of painting. Or maybe that’s why you can take the positions you do. How do you think about questions of painting relative to history?
MW: I don’t really think about history. I think about individuals in history, other painters. I don’t think about the course of painting. It feels a little dry to think that way. It feels presumptuous to even consider it.
SH: There’s a beautiful quote by Robert Ryman, where he says something to the effect that nobody works on the history of painting as a monolithic entity. Instead, each artist has an awareness of what has been done and finds problems—taking “little bites” is his language—to make one’s own.2 He said it more elegantly, but it was just to make the point that there is so much work to be done that you take some aspect of it and go from there. You go as far as you can and then that leads to other things, which lead to still others. This is a model of history that isn’t historicist. Things are not foreclosed and they come back. Everything moves.
MW: It’s very easy to put Ryman into the history of painting in a dry way, but he’s one of the funkiest painters.
SH: For sure. He is so expansive, just not through style. What would it mean for a painting not to be tacked to a support? What if you move the support flush to the wall [fig. 15]? What if you move it parallel to the floor? What if a single painting traverses a corner? All these things he did … just asking fundamental questions about how to make something that could be categorized as painting from within its history and conventions and materials. I feel like he proposes a whole lexicon of possibilities that doesn’t end anything.
MW: I think a lot of painters like painting because of its limitations. Ryman limits it so much more for himself, but in doing so he seems to find a whole bunch of new things to do.
SH: That’s the part of it that appeals to me. What if, rather than imagining that something is impracticable, which is such an abdication of responsibility, you say something’s possible and act as if it is? What if you just keep doing the thing that you do? New things will come out of that work. For instance, you could make puzzle paintings forever. Not that you would want to, but you could. It’s an ethical stance in a way. It sounds so hokey to say it, but …
MW: No, not really. I like that idea.
SH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately—especially with the issue of the #J20 art strike and the world in which we find ourselves since the election.3 Is art going to keep mattering or not? It is up to us to argue that it does. Maybe there is a space of opportunity if you figure out what to do in that space, even if you feel really constricted, whether it’s self-imposed or coming from without.
MW: Yeah. It’s funny lately with this Tr**p “drain the swamp” stuff—I’ve often thought of painting as having something to do with being flung into the middle of a swamp and being forced to build something there.
Michael Williams is on view in the Forum Gallery at Carnegie Museum of Art from April 21 to August 27, 2017. This exhibition was organized by Eric Crosby, Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
This interview is excerpted from Michael Williams, the exhibition catalogue published to accompany the artist’s first US solo museum exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art. Preorder now.
- Whitney Davis, “A Thin Red Line,” podcast lecture, October 9, 2014, University of Sydney, https://soundcloud.com/the-power-institute/whitney-davis-a-thin-red-line. ↵
- “I don’t know. I think maybe it doesn’t. It does from time to time and it does in small ways. There are problems that you work on and there is an awareness of what has been done[,] what others have worked on[,] and how they’ve approached painting and the solutions that they’ve come to … It isn’t a blanket kind of historical thing that everyone is involved with. I think everyone has to take little bites, little pieces of it and work on that … But I don’t know that there is any big philosophy that encompasses it all.” Robert Ryman interview with Robert Storr (1986), in Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Abstract Painting of America and Europe: Brice Marden, Gerhard Richter, Helmut Federle, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman (Klagenfurt, Austria: Ritter Verlag, 1988), 213. ↵
- The #J20 art strike was organized as “an act of noncompliance” on January 20, 2017, the day Donald Tr**p was inaugurated as president of the United States; https://j20artstrike.org. ↵