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In Art, March 1987
«Making Visual Images»
Frank Williams makes sculptures. Sometimes they're shocking, sometimes funny, but they are always thought provoking and intense. Williams made a commitment to using the human figure early in his explorations and has continued to expand his visions through periods of photorealism and psychological distortions, to pieces that are gestural fragmentations. A current piece from the "Projection" series contrasts a figure in an extended pose with a geometric steel framework that echoes and expands the figure's gesture. A sense of elegance has replaced the psychological jolt, and the painted surfaces draw the viewer into the work rather than repulsing with exaggerated skin textures.
Once you meet Williams, it's easy to see where some of the figural exaggerations of the pieces come from; he has a larger than life aspect about himself. Stocky and muscular, Williams obviously doesn't lead a sedentary life. His facial expressions change from a concerned furrowing of the brow to a wide smile in midsentence, and one is met with a confrontational directness. Williams moved to Houston in 1981, after an academic stint at South East Missouri State University and time spent in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He met Roller Wilson while in Arkansas, and heard about Houston's growing art community. Wilson's recommendation, coupled with the promise of a job with an industrial display company, made Houston a consideration. Williams visited several times, got acquainted with galleries and other artists and was included in a summer sculpture exhibit at the Lawndale Art Annex in 1979. The art scene seemed wide open. "I liked the idea of coming into a raw space, (and it still is pretty much a raw space)...and a wide open art scene. There wasn't the establishment here," Williams remembers. "I didn't recognize the type of art establishment that was here, either. I assumed it wasn't as tight as it was other places, it's just different. There isn't as much support as in the other major centers."
His assessment of the current situation in Houston is guarded. "I think it's fluctuating right now, it's really going through a lot of growth pains. For the last two years, since 'Fresh Paint,' I think it's regrouping, figuring out what to do next. Especially with the overwhelming economic situation that we're faced with now, it can't go as far, as fast."
And Williams is used to going fast. The chronicle of his life reads like a roller coaster of successful, and not so successful, endeavors. Marriages, divorces, businesses, jobs, sales, disastrous exhibits, and through it all there is a tenacious hold on the sculpture. "It's like they say, 'Someday you'll die and be famous,'" he muses. "I don't really want to wait that long, but if that's what it takes, I've gone through all that quandary about 'Why the hell am I doing this stuff?' The reason I'm doing it is beyond me, it's just compulsive, and I have to do it; it's what I want to do most of all, so that's why I do it. There's no logic to it." But there is a logic to the, work and its progression through the years; descriptions of three seminal pieces illustrate this.
The earliest piece I saw of Williams' was called Transition. It was displayed in the opening exhibit at Midtown Art Center, hanging from the ceiling on a large forged steel hook that pierced the top of the cocoon-shaped main portion. The weight of the piece caused the cocoon to stretch and to tear open at the top. This revealed an exaggeratedly naturalistic head of a man wrapped inside. The main cocoon shape was a reddish-brown color and, although it was made of resin-soaked fabric, the texture, color and shape reminded me of the "bag-worms" that used to infest the evergreen trees growing around our house when I was a child. Extending from the bottom of the cocoon was a man's arm, made of cast latex and pigmented to resemble dead flesh, that almost touched the surface of a small pond made of a mirror cast into a resin frame.
"The first time I showed it was in Springfield, Missouri. You think it blew people away in Houston in 1982 or 1983, whenever that was; in 1977 in Springfield, Missouri, it was 'Oh man, where's the straight jacket for this guy.' But it was really funny, I had to keep the kids away at the opening. They were all up there touching it, because the fingers on the hand moved and it had hair on the arm. In one sense it was very grotesque, and in another sense it was very inviting. It created a large amount of curiosity, right off the bat. It got your attention when you walked in the room. I still like stuff like that. I like other people's work that grabs my attention. What's ironic is that, by the time I moved to Houston in 1981,1 was looking for a different direction, a different way to go."
The next piece that came to my attention was Odessa Tea Room. It was a life-sized, super real sculpture of a cowboy leaning on a bar. The naturalism was still exaggerated, but for different effect. Unlike the lifeless grotesque head and arm in Transition, this was a hard working, hard living, sun burnt rough neck. His battered hat, sleeveless plaid shirt, ripped jeans and rolled over boots evoked a life style and an economic class. "The cowboy I did as a commission piece...I gave them three ideas...and the oil field rough neck was chosen. This [piece] was from a personal experience I had working in Odessa, Texas, when I was doing the displays. Ironically enough, it was commissioned by a man who owned a bank in Odessa, and he liked the idea because he was tied in with all that. So that's how I got into that kind of super realistic stuff."
The transition from the super real to Williams' current work came from a pair of sculptures that have been exhibited in Houston in the past few years. Pidgeon sat outside The Drawing Room Gallery on Montrose Boulevard for months. The silver woman in the steel structure was the break with solid environments around the figures. During a proportion check, Williams placed the figure in the unfinished framework and decided that it was better than what he had planned. But the conceptual break came earlier in a piece for the "Propaganda" exhibit at Midtown Art Center in 1985. The image of a starving child leaning out, holding a mirror up to the viewer was titled Tell Me a life, and it melded the super real, the psychologic and formal structure together into a single statement.
The slightly oversized child's figure appears terribly emaciated; the skeleton is barely covered with skin and sinew. With its last strength it holds a small, glitter encrusted mirror. The figure leans toward you, and the geometric base unit exaggerates the unstable gesture. The ashen surface is neither realistically natural nor wildly expressionistic, but it reinforces the calamitous aura that engulfs the viewer. It has the ambiguous appeal and repulsion of Transition, the naturalistic modeling of Odessa Tea Room and the prefigures geometry and surfaces of the most recent "Projection" series.
"Some critic along the line said the work was self-indulgent, and I feel like it probably was. But what I was trying to do with all that stuff was to strike a universal emotional chord with people, and say, 'Gosh, I've felt this bad. Have you felt this bad?'...It was self indulgent, very personal. I was looking to be different. I thought that was what artists were supposed to be. We weren't supposed to be generic, milk toast, manufactured things that came out of schools and made art." "I started off when I was a little kid making stuff, and that's what I keep doing. That's the important thing. Whether you're going to be an artist, an architect, an engineer or a ditch digger, it doesn't matter, so long as you have some happiness and fulfillment in what you do."
By Meredith Jack