Peter Williams: Black Universe @ MoCAD
Peter Williams: Black Universe is a joint exhibition that presents Williams’ figurative and abstract paintings. Williams’ visually compelling works intertwine art historical references, allegories, current events, and personal life experiences. In this two-part exhibition, which presents more than two dozen paintings, the artist addresses difficult social issues, such as racial discrimination and climate change, through symbolic imagery, grotesque figures, and vibrant compositions. Now a professor of painting at the University of Delaware, Williams taught for 17 years at Wayne State University in Detroit and was a well-established member of the arts community.
Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in collaboration with guest curators Larry Ossei-Mensah and Rebecca Mazzei, the exhibition highlights new figurative works from Williams’ Black Exodus series (on view at MOCAD) and Narration and Transition, a survey of abstract paintings (on view at Trinosophes) that are an essential aspect of his dynamic oeuvre. Williams presents an uncensored picture of dominant contemporary culture, one in which our desires, our humor, our complicity and brutality are unsuppressed.
MOCAD presents a selection of 10 paintings from the Black Exodus series, featuring a highly evolved Afrofuturist storyline that uses allegory, dark humor, and satire to explore a new ecologically focused life for Black people. The series examines the idea of “space” literally and metaphorically, referring to the surface of the canvas, the physical realm, and perhaps most importantly, the realm of inner and outer consciousness.
With the earth on the verge of social and environmental disaster, a community bands together as they embark on an interdimensional voyage. Individuals travel in retrofitted 1950s flying cars, referencing the ingenuity of Cuban society during Socialism and Williams’ time spent living in the Motor City.
The formal qualities of painting function purposefully in the artist’s work as he slips between abstraction and figuration. Williams’ stimulating color palette lures viewers in to explore themes regarding racial animosity that they may otherwise find challenging to confront. He also uses pattern and distortion as devices to “scramble things up,” emphasizing the disruptive and disorienting conditions that affect Black lives in American society. His characters may grab the viewer’s attention at first, but nothing can be taken at face value. A network of activity resides in the layers beneath the surface.
This charged body of work showcases the artist’s incredible knack for storytelling, as well as an in-depth knowledge of art history and the history of civilization that seem to be at his fingertips. He invites viewers to use their imagination when exploring a narrative he has constructed.
These paintings often convey multiple perceptual experiences at once, evoking potent imagery of both a physiological and psychological nature—totemic forms suggestive of sexuality and desire, ancient cultural significance, or even his own experience living in his body. Williams experienced great trauma as a young man, when he was involved in a car accident that left him disabled. Flesh, muscle, blood vessels, and cellular activity come to mind in the visceral forms he repetitively makes. These elements also become solutions for figuration, laying the groundwork for props that emerge in his narrative paintings, where they take on new meaning while carrying the ‘DNA’ of their origin.
Peter Williams: Black Universe is co-curated by guest curators Larry Ossei-Mensah and Rebecca Mazzei and organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Trinosophes (1464 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit).