A history of humanity, with humor: New paintings by Philip Hone Williams
March 7, 2013
ASPEN – Philip Hone Williams – and no less his art – caused a small sensation last May at the Red Brick Center for the Arts’ Red Brick Biennial in Aspen. Williams’ piece in the juried exhibition was audacious: the title of his oil on wood panel was “A Short History of Humanity from the Beginning to the End” and it featured lots of nudity, lots of color and a cartoonish, slightly naughty, sense of humor. It was priced at $32,000, many times that of the usual art shown at the Red Brick gallery.
It was the kind of piece that couldn’t be ignored, and the viewers who crowded around and buzzed about it wondered who this artist, new to the Red Brick gallery, was. Williams himself, who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley four years ago, wasn’t on hand to answer that question; he missed the opening, mistakenly thinking it was set for 7 p.m., not 5. So Williams was also not there to receive his prize for first place in the Biennial. “A 37-cent blue ribbon,” he laughs.
Last year’s Biennial marked the first time Williams had exhibited his current brand of work – large-scale, satirical pieces, populated with demons, aliens, historical figures and Dr. Seuss-ish contraptions all busily involved in some vaguely unholy entanglement. He says he was surprised by the reception, but above all, he hoped viewers got the joke of it all.
“Humor is so important to me. And it’s fun,” Williams, a gentle 72-year-old with a gray ponytail, said at his studio on Main Street in Carbondale.
The current exhibition at Aspen’s Red Brick, the group show Surreal: For Real?! features “A Short History of Humanity from the Beginning to the End” plus four more pieces which confirm that Williams’ sense of playfulness is intact. Among the pieces is “The Irreverent Rapture,” which inverts the Christian story of what will happen upon the second coming of Jesus.
“This is the opposite – the sinners all rise, leaving the religious people on the Earth,” Williams said, noting the transvestites, drinkers and golfers who are ascending to heaven, and the priests and churchgoers stuck on terra firma. “That’s the type of work I do – put a lot of humor in it. Deal with very serious subjects, but in a humorous way.”
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Williams’ work didn’t always have that lighter side. As an art student, he was fascinated with Francis Bacon, the British painter whose work was marked by raw expressions of emotion. Bacon’s signature element was a screaming mouth. Williams, who remains “a big Bacon freak,” tried early in his career to put that doomed quality in his work.
“But that didn’t seem to go anywhere,” he said. “I did a lot of dark things in my creative career. But I always got further with humor.”
And Williams’ work wasn’t always of the visual variety. A native of the Cleveland area, Williams studied oil painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After graduating with a BFA, he did some portrait paintings. “But I got discouraged dealing with people’s vanities,” he said.
Williams turned instead to sound. He became a location sound engineer, making a good living working on commercial and industrial films. He also worked on political pieces, including one for Jimmy Carter’s first presidential run, and a handful of low-budget feature films. The commercial work allowed Williams to open his own sound recording studio, in Philadelphia, and the studio allowed Williams to indulge his purely creative side.
“I got blown away by the idea of using sound as a medium of art, which is often referred to as ‘musique concrete,'” Williams said. He collected an enormous library of sound effects – “my palette,” he said – and several times a year around Philadelphia he would exhibit his sound collages, eight-minute works installed in dark rooms. “It just took over my brain. I’d go on these trips, listen for hours and hours, put together these incredible things with tapes and recorders and sounds repeating themselves, mostly sounds I’d collected from my film work. And I’d use my voice a lot.”
Over a decade and a half, Williams gathered so many sound samples that his collection became overwhelming. To catalog them, in 1984 he bought a desktop computer – “a Timex Sinclair, a tiny little computer,” he said – and became fascinated with computer language.
“I bailed out of sound effects. Sold all my sound gear, sold the studio, buried myself for six months, went underground, learned programming and emerged as a freelance programmer,” Williams said. “This was when desktop computers were just getting popular, and there was a lot of demand. I was into a new life.”
Computers led him into the next life. In the mid-’90s, after two decades doing almost no visual art, Williams saw the promise of design programs like Photoshop. He began doing graphic work, with an emphasis on children’s material. Williams created several kids books, and for four years, he designed the Thinking Page for Highlights magazine.
In 2006, Williams, the descendant of several accomplished painters, all women, on his mother’s side, got into what he figures will be the final stage of his career. He had been thinking about oil painting for years, and in his mid-60s, he got to it. His first piece was “The Irreverent Rapture”; the process, which involves drawing digitally on a tablet, converting the drawing to a gray 44-by-72-inch print, painting by hand over that, and building his own wooden panel, took a year.
With the first one behind him, the process has become quicker; a painting now takes about three months. Williams has a series of 12 in mind; when they are complete, he would like to have a show in a major urban center, maybe Los Angeles. Among those he has completed is “The Bemusement of the Ancients.” Inspired by his romantic partner, an acupuncturist and massage therapist named Nancy Thal, it’s a take on modern and traditional medicine, with images of fat bodies in thongs, and a fast-food joint which excretes diners directly into the Chance General hospital, which is depicted as a slot machine. “It’s how we take care of our bodies, as opposed to how we used to take care of ourselves,” Williams said.
Williams has created a list of some 50 additional topics he would like to address in his paintings: The Birth of Graffiti, the Ku Klux Klan Meets the Taliban, How the West Was Won – Really, the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. “The list keep growing. It always puzzles me when artists say they’ve run out of things to paint. My god, there’s a world out there,” he said.
All of Williams’ recent paintings have the same above-the-horizon visual perspective. Williams says it’s the same perspective he used in all of his Highlights designs. But in the oil paintings, it lends a feeling as though the artist were omniscient, sitting in heaven, looking down on the human comedy and tragedy. It also adds weight to the comedic aspect of Williams’ work.
“I’m 72 years old,” Williams said. “I’ve been around for a while and done a lot of different things. So I do have a perspective.”