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Exploration: Discovery: Transformation: new work by Hugh Williams

Hugh Williams’ career as a respected teacher and prolific artist has been shaped by his creativity and passion for discovery and finding different challenges. Since his retirement in 1992, Williams has continued to teach, garden, travel, and explore new possibilities in his studio. The assemblage-paintings in this exhibit represent a self-noted departure for Williams from abstract figural and narrative forms to large-scale nonrepresentational object-centered explorations.

For Williams, the work reflects a return to a time when he first ventured outside of his home-state of Alabama and encountered the world of art in New York City.  It was also at this time that he first became aware of what has become a life-long exploration of materials, mark-making, and use of ready-made objects transformed for aesthetic purposes. In this new body of work Williams continues to examine  materials, processes, and meaning through the manipulation of ready-made forms, and the discovery of transformations enforced by space and natural processes such as the breakdown of plastics through fire, or the decay of materials through time. Primary concerns in these assemblages are size, scale and the achievement of assimilating or incorporating individual pieces into a whole. The placement and grouping of works in the gallery are meant to create an overall presence, one that envelops the viewer and suggests both the artist’s thought process, as well as his views on our environment. Williams’ intentionally provokes his audience through his manipulation of non-traditional artistic materials.  Using the banal and familiar such as plastic lawn chairs, discarded soda cans and bedsprings he asks that we reconsider our refuse laden environment. Is there beauty in the mundane, is the ubiquity of mass-produced objects contributing to our aesthetic and cultural individuality, and what do we think about acquiescence to global homogenization?

Williams’ questions have no doubt been influenced by his travels across the U.S. and abroad. In 1991 and 1993 Williams’ was awarded Fulbright Fellowships to Africa, which inspired him to explore aesthetic possibilities rich with material objects. He began integrating found objects with traditional painting techniques. Of course, the use of collage and ready-made found objects is not new to the history of art. Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg gained notoriety using ready-made objects which challenged traditional notions of high art. Though we can find evidence of the found object in the work of Louise Nevelson, Joseph Cornell and Jasper Johns, it is the early work of Robert Rauschenberg from the late 1950s and early 1960s that seems to have most inspired this installation of Williams’ new works.

In some sense, Williams’ travels, to unfamiliar places like Africa, have always proved challenging and inspirational. As a younger man he had left the cocoon like familiarity of home for the new and provocative environs of New York City when international attention turned toward post-war American art and artists. It was an eye-opening experience for Williams, one that he has never forgotten and still credits as a turning point in his artistic career. There he met artists such as Louise Nevelson, visited their studios, attended lectures, and discussed art theory in local night spots. The lessons learned then in many ways still serve as inspiration for this body of work.

Here he has sought to create a more reflective and personal vocabulary. Responding to observations of environmental change and exploitation, observed so often through his travels, Williams incorporates the universality of roadside trash and plastic furniture into his work noting that these things have become part of our global environment replacing vernacular aesthetics with one of universal banality   The question he poses seems to be is the homogenization of cultures a progressive move for humanity, or a loss of unique cultural environments? 

Williams notes that it is his never-ending curiosity and exploration which drives him to search for the unique, the individual and the beauty in everyday objects. For Williams, there is meaning in these bits and pieces and beauty in form no matter what the material. He has presented us, the viewer, with a similar challenge to reflect upon materials, the environment, and the loss of cultural and aesthetic individuality and to discover a new way of looking at objects, art, and the changing nature of beauty and art in our global society.