[“still,” (2009), one channel DV without sound 8:44. “STILL AT LAND,” (2009), one channel DV without sound 12:45. “Don’t let me down,” (2009), one channel DV without sound 8:38.]
Abbey Williams conflates unsentimental perspectives on potential motherhood with a personal struggle to make art in her current show at Bellwether Gallery through May 9. In (STILL), Williams makes near motionless performances in a series of video portraits in which she superimposes herself over a still image insistently trying and failing and trying to equal the figure in the frame. She continues to work with video in multiple channels: images are projected side by side or layered in a single frame in an effort by the artist to contend with the flattening of time as she dissolves herself over art historical images and pop culture iconography.
Objective and subjective camera come together in STILL AT LAND (2009), which echoes and magnifies “Meshes of the Afternoon,” the 1943 experimental film directed by wife and husband team Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. This is accomplished both in a circular narrative as well as repetition of psychologically symbolic images. Through repeated action and subtle transitions, Williams breaks viewer expectations and conveys ambivalent feelings. Originally, Deren and Hammid sought to create an avant garde personal film dealing with psychological problems along the lines of the Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel collaborations “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) and “L’Age d’Or” (1930). (While Deren usually receives principal artistic credit for the film, filmmaker Stan Brakhage asserts that it was largely Hammid’s creation.)
Attempting to assume literal visual semblance to become a figurative equivalent, Williams appropriates Kishin Shinoyama’s cover photo for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1980 album “Double Fantasy” in 2009’s “still.” Likewise, she does this for her 2008 work “Black Hole” with “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World), the 1866 oil on canvas painted by French artist Gustave Courbet. (Notably, the model in the original was most likely Joanna Hifferman, whose lover was American painter and Corbet disciple James McNeil Whistler.)
The influence of Sophie Calle is obvious in Williams’ depiction of human vulnerability with respect to examinations of identity and intimacy—down to inclusions of text. Multiple images and bodies grapple with the history of the representation of women and Williams’ own vulnerability as she uses herself as the subject and medium of this exploration in such works ranging from “(for Milos)” (2009) to “Don’t let me down” (2009). Transition’s very struggle and tedium is obvious in the first piece while more breathless struggle comes through in the latter.
On the very movement of such works as “(for Milos),” “Don’t let me down,” and “STILL AT LAND,” one finds the fingerprint of seminal choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer for whom work in those two disciplines was fraught with challenge and experimentation. Rainer’s work with the Martha Graham School, Merce Cunningham, and especially the Judson Dance Theater brought her to the bubbling laboratories of dance. Her artistic bases—repetition, patterning, tasks, and games—became standard in modern dance. The work of one of the world’s most renowned video artists is also seen in William’s works. Ulrike Rosenbach paved the way many times over in her use of video documentation and experimentation with respect to electronic images. Rosenbach crossed one boundary after another with her feminist critiques of women’s representation and formulations of women’s identity.
Meditating on the arc of the creative process via pregnancy, motherhood, fertility, and sexuality, Williams set out on this body of work in anticipation of the birth of her first child and completed the work prior to her expected due date. As does Cindy Sherman with completely different images and areas of conflict, Williams analyzes individual identity—both at the level of generated fantasies and shaped forces. Previous to (STILL), Abbey Williams’ work has been exhibited at the Tate, PS1/MoMA , The Hammer Museum, The Studio Museum of Harlem, and Hartford’s Wadsworth Antheum Museum. Living and working in Brooklyn, Williams’ work is complex in its symbolic power while holding a visceral quality. She speculates without sinking into preoccupation.
(STILL) by Abbey Williams
through May 9, 2009
134 Tenth Avenue between 18th & 19th Streets, NYC 10011