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Anchorage Daily News, March 4, 2001

«From Russia, with angst»

American sculptor finds motivation in the chaos of the collapsed Soviet Union.

Frank Williams hit a snag going through customs on his way out of Moscow recently. The artist had packed several of his angel sculptures in his luggage for an exhibition in Alaska. The pieces are part of a new series expressing what Williams describes as a cynical statement about the hypocrisy of religion.

Nestled in among his underwear and socks were one particular bronze angel, complete with elaborate wooden wings and a ring binding her leg to a pole to prevent her from flying. Apparently the anti-religion message was too subtle, however.

“Oh,” the inspector said to Williams’ assistant, who is also his interpreter, “these are religious items”. The assistant quickly agreed, and the pleased pair moved on to the next counter. There, while trying to stop another passenger’s box from topping, Williams got his foot crushed beneath it. The contents of the box? Bibles.

Williams chortled while telling the story. Like his artwork, the 53-year-old isn’t easily categorized. Interaction with the men unloading crates of his work off a truck at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art this week, he’s both one of the guys and yet obviously in charge of the scene. Meeting a stranger, he’s personable and charismatic but readily admits to being confrontational.

“I’m in your face”, he explains, not just referring to his edgy art. “(And) I like other people’s art that challenges me.”

Williams moved full time to Moscow in 1993, after 11 years in Houston. He’d shopped around for a new home in the United States but found Seattle, for example, too “laid back”. The Russia, which he first visited with his attorney wife, was not.

In fact, it provided sentient inspiration. Williams’ work exudes the conflict of an emerging nation. Faces are disembodied and anguished; a grasping hand reaches through broken barbed wire; a giant wheel, part of the multi-piece installation that Williams calls “The Burden”, weighs ? of a ton and looks capable of crushing an entire population.

Is this angst reserved just for his art? “I think the work pretty much reflects the guy,” Williams admits.

An intricate piece called “Blue Light Special” pillories the cars driven by “important people” in Moscow. The sculpture’s centerpiece, below a flashing blue light, is the fatuous head of a bureaucrat, cigarette dangling from his lip. Mercedes-Benz insignias, representing the auto of choice for such types, flank the head, while an outstretched hand overflows with coins. The piece rocks and emits siren noises, all while looking mechanically menacing.

Not only has Williams taken to Russia and its eccentricities, the country has embraced him. He’s been the subject of television documentaries and numerous flattering newspaper articles. A recent story in Moscow: Today and tomorrow magazine said he’s taken his exhibition to “almost all of the important art museums in Russia”.

In addition to his sculptures, Williams exhibits his paintings and an extensive collection of Russian photographs, taken mostly pre-1998.

He’s also a popular speaker, willingly talking to “anybody who has a figment of an idea about art”. That includes trying to encourage and give validation to young budding artists in Siberia, even though they’re mostly interested in hearing about the United States.

“It becomes a pop culture thing”, he said.

Williams’ work of the past decade has been inspirited by changes in Russia, mirrored by changes in his life. While what he calls “the transition” continues in his new homeland, it’s no longer his sole artistic impetus.

“I think my work is now getting a little more universal in its statement”, he said. The current emphasis on what he calls “quasi-religious” topics comes from what he believes is the spiritual component of most art. “I think all my work has some little spiritual alley or side street”, he said. But he doesn’t seem interested in defining or explaining exactly what that is. “It’s the driving force, the motivation”, he said. “It is so complex, why not go with it?” And so he does, in a number of different directions. He started as a sculptor of sorts, by creating a Superman figure at the age of 5 or 6. The artist’s angst arrived early, too, when he struggled over which of his two grandmothers to give it to.

The medium of the art really doesn’t seem to matter. “I’ve always done what I’ve needed to do to make the statement,” he said. That might mean acrylic paints on board, or a fiberglass or aluminum sculpture. His process also varies, sometimes beginning with a sketch, sometimes not. The payoff from his art ebbs and flows, so Williams has always done other things to help pay the bills. He’s been a carpenter, painted walls, sketched the principals in a murder trial and taught school.

“It’s all for the art,” he said. His paintings and sketches might sell for $700 to $1,200. A small sculpture goes for about $3,000; the giant wheel’s price is $150,000. In Russia, he’s had luck selling to banks and fellow “expats”, the term he uses for himself and other transplanted Americans.

While Russia’s struggles are no longer his major inspiration, though his exhibit here Williams hopes to share with Alaskans a side of the country different from what they normally see. If he sells some pieces here, great. But he’s open to all the possibilities. “Maybe it’s just an investment in what comes,” he said.

By Susan Morgan