Last Call: Carl Joe Williams at The Front
Welcome back! Pelican Bomb is excited about what’s in store for 2013. As we ring in the new year, we say goodbye to some December exhibitions, like Carl Joe Williams at The Front. It’s the last weekend to catch the show. Before it’s gone, Denise Frazier weighs in.
During one unseasonably warm December night on St. Claude, local artist Carl Joe Williams happily grins at the opening of his show “Fractured Soul.” He lights a cigarette and tells the story of how another artist had recently criticized him almost to the point of inertia. “Yeah, I had to take a nap after that!” Williams’ optimism amidst struggles carries over into his latest work, leads the viewer to the inevitable outcome that embodies his exuberance, a well-choreographed wash of colors and layers.
The exhibition’s title “Fractured Soul” appropriately represents the melding of iconic New Orleans imagery with more far-flung sources. Williams layers colors and shapes in concentric patterns of dark rouges, shocking light blues, deep purples, and soft pinks on found objects and differently positioned sections of wood that pop or fade into the backdrop. An image of a black boy playing the trombone is completed with a multihued circle behind his head harkening to Early European Christian painting. Acknowledged in its title Hearing the Voice of God Featuring Jeremy "Mojo" Phipps, 2012, this modernized halo immediately elevates the piece’s spiritual significance and introduces us to a new kind of New Orleans iconography that is alternatively cheerful and melancholic.
While Williams has not discussed the religious significance of the exhibition as a whole, he has stated that the geometric patterns and layering found in his work are informed by nature and a “search for universality.” In this search for interrelationships, Williams’ use of tubing and circles, a major protagonist in “Fractured Soul,” invites the viewer to notice the other shapes—parallelograms and squares jutting out and remaining a part of the piece at the same time. Williams positions clusters of small circles together to give a dreamlike, cloud appearance that is reminiscent of 1960s pop art mixed with Spanish tilework and Southern artistic patchwork detail—like a colorful urban quilt.
The idea of quilts, patchwork composition, and the Southern experience vividly flourish across Williams’ work. We find the Southern archetypes we are familiar with in African-American vernacular painting—little black girls with plaits, black men with gold teeth, baptisms, and religious symbols—infused with the poignancy and specificity of the New Orleans experience. In “Fragmented Soul,” the boys with the gold teeth pictured in No Trespassing, 2012, are clearly running from someone. Referencing the famous Norman Rockwell image of three mischievous white boys fleeing a swimming hole, Williams’ version takes on a decidedly different tone in its approach to racism and classism. One of the boys has a fleur-de-lis tattoo on his arm, a grim reminder of the French colonial branding to which Africans in New Orleans were subjected, while at the same time a nod to the modern popularity of the symbol among New Orleanians.
“Fractured Soul” engages a breadth of referents that spans from socially critical imagery to geometric abstraction and even classic sitcoms. As Williams intended, the “fragmented elements” of his work scatter pieces of a puzzle that viewers could characterize as part of the enigma and complexity of the South, of New Orleans, and ultimately, of Williams himself. Which leads me to the slightly cool December night and Williams’ tale of the criticizing artist. Anxiously wanting to hear how the story ends, I pepper Williams with questions: “What did you do? Change your work? Start all over with a new concept?” With smiling eyes, Williams replies, “The next day I woke up and just went back to work.”
“Fractured Soul” is on view through January 6, 2013, at The Front (4100 St. Claude Avenue) in New Orleans.