The 2022 Janet & Walter Sondheim Arts Prize winner James Williams II creates sculptural paintings about identity, self-portraiture, parenthood, and Blackness. His three-dimensional works vary in size and in media (oil paint, fiber, video, a lot of velcro) and all elicit a sense of naïveté and wonder. At the same time, the work unravels the racist construction of Blackness, which no matter how wrong and manufactured it may be, is so deeply a part of history that its origins and implications cannot be escaped. Williams’ work makes you want to get closer to it, touch it, and experience its exploration of “the Black Construct.”
“Hand-me-downs” portrays a delicate and blooming expanse of flowers in pink with leaves of green. A bust for displaying jewelry, ivory black, is adorned with a strand of large onyx beads sticking out of the center of the oil painting and at the bottom, an oversized white dress glove emerges, reaching out across the floral background. Williams has created a twenty-first century vanitas that through its composition, color, and title, made me think of legacy and the way that Black women in my own life have passed down to me lessons (and objects) I carry with me every day. “Hand-me-downs” made me think of the wallpaper in my Aunt Peaches’ house and the care she takes in displaying her jewelry and trinkets in her home, where bottles of perfume line her bathroom countertop and earrings cover her dresser.
Williams displays a similar, special care for how objects are arranged and his work’s chock full of specific references to growing up Black across the diaspora—and in the Black church.
In “Descendants of Cain,” Williams renders painting three-dimensional. A vibrant orange sleeve of a Black hand holds a dagger dripping blood onto a zebra-like black and white floor. Behind the hand with the knife, a wooden door. And because the hand sticks out of the painting, it casts a shadow, created by Williams in velcro. It feels like some Tales From The Hood version of the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
“How to Completely Disappear” is a monumental painting reimagining a famous photograph of “Bigfoot” walking through the woods and looking at the camera. Here, the creature is covered in a mass of deep black yarn that hangs from the painting. The creature’s protruding eyes and lips recall minstrel imagery. In the foreground, layers of rock, branches, and foliage add another three-dimensional element. A lavender L-shape frames part of the painting, with the silhouettes of objects including a pen, a lamb, music notes, and a boot, while a bird and a bat are marked with a red X. If you look closely at the painting, you’ll see that the shapes of a bird and bat are both circled in red, as if “How to Completely Disappear” were something from the pages of Highlights or even, MAD.
Meanwhile, the beast looks at the viewer, almost life-size in scale, unable to disappear or hide within the confines of the Walters Art Museum. The implications of Blackness in America are inescapable in this bleak, funny painting: To be Black in this country is to be aware that you are always on display, and at any moment, likely being stared at and objectified.
The 2022 Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize Finalists’ Exhibition, which also includes work by Maren Henson and Megan Koeppel, is on view from July 21 through September 18 at the Walters Museum of Art.