OTHER PEOPLE'S WORDS
LANGUID OBJECTS ANIMATED
Executive Director and Curator for Greater Reston Art Center
for THINGS THAT DON'T HAVE NAMES, 2019
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? These five W’s and one H (5w1H), are a useful starting place for anyone trying to gather information to tell a story. When applied to personhood, as Stephanie J. Williams does, they take on an awkwardness and an urgency. Through her work, Williams responds to these questions, not with clear answers but with humor, sensitivity, playfulness, seriousness, and complication. An artist, by nature of their public persona, is always opening themselves to scrutiny, always offering answers to these questions.
There is an oversized stuffed organ hanging from the ceiling and rotating slowly. It is a spinning disco ball; a hunk of meat on a spit; a churning stomach. The answer to the question, “What are you?”—a question Williams acknowledges she has been asked more than once, many times over in fact—is never straightforward. In this exhibition, Williams offers an oblique invitation to the viewer to diagram out a definition of self. A churning stomach can be a symptom of many things but perhaps the first that come to mind are distress and disgust. Distress and disgust at being scrutinized, questioned, questioned again, at the thought of eating something weird, not being able to categorize things, not knowing how to answer who you are, what you are, where you are, when you are, why you are, or how you are. The anxiety would be overwhelming if Williams were not so goodhumored. The stomach is as soft as a pillow and Pepto-Bismol pink, it is adorned with a tutu of tulle/small intestine as it proudly pirouettes centerstage alongside a chorus of entangled tube socks huddled at the edge of the stage.
Williams had a Filipino, African American, and Catholic upbringing in Northern Virginia. She attended Catholic school in Washington, DC, and came home to the family’s Christmas tree farm. This exhibition is about her but it is also about, as the artist herself states, “not only the ‘untruth’ of perceived and constructed cultural contexts, but also consider[s] through anecdote and interview, the ‘corrective tactics’ used over generations by marginalized communities to teach ourselves about American identity”.1 Over the years, the artist has built a lexicon of visual morphemes, pitches, and syllables that can be configured and reconfigured to form cohesive bodies (of work). She takes these pieces, made of yet smaller parts—fabric remnants, cheap and bulk found materials—to create the semblance of a larger organism that continues to remain nameless despite its uncanny familiarity. There are body parts, food parts, parts of clothing, glimpses of the locker room and the clubhouse, parts of you, parts of me, and parts of her.
There are elements that are repeated throughout the installation. The aforementioned tube socks are meticulously carved pieces of framing lumber that originally appeared in the artist’s oeuvre as a work entitled Gym Joy (2017), though the referent of the sock was already present in much earlier work. The hardness of the wood is mediated by the soft curves carved by the artist and the suggestion of the familiar comfort of the sock. The whites are crisp, and the colors of the stripes are bold.
The apex of a work from 2016, Petitionary Prayer, appears in this exhibition now placed directly on the ground. It is difficult to decipher what is happening—is a body bent in prayer, two bodies engaged in a lewd act, a figure bowed in reverence or shame? What is unmistakable is the pleated plaid skirt almost universally recognized as that from a Catholic schoolgirls’ uniform. Tube socks are often part of a uniform first donned in adolescence too. Dress and uniform are a common “corrective tactic” used by the marginalized to perform within a specific cultural context and to cover bodies that may be seen as different.
Bodies come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures yet are still more or less comprised of the same parts. Every body has sphincters, follicles, digestive tracts, a vascular system, sex organs, muscle, fat, and so much more. These are the parts that Williams has disassembled and catalogued, representing no one and everyone.
Moving from the realm of the mundane and corporeal to that of the glorified, Williams’s pays homage to the rarefied space of the trophy room. The walls are covered in green carpeting one might associate with the golf club, an emerald green that brings the course inside, cheap enough to be easily replaced when the tony members’ cleats rip a pinpoint tear. The artist has made her own trophies using miniature craft store wood plaques and wooden dowels affixed to resemble a bird perch. Each trophy is painted white with the ubiquitous tube sock stripes adorning each post. A glistening tongue, or is it a phallus, works its way out from the top and around each one giving them distinct crude personalities in their uniformity.
The coda to the exhibition is a short animation that the artist made in situ. There is a strip of wiry white hair with follicles exposed running the length of the wall. In the video, the hairs furl and unfurl, quiver, dance around each other and with each other; they shoot erect and collapse prostrate. There is a single black hair that appears to embolden the others’ actions. And in the final frames, all is still again.
The title of the exhibition comes from a quote in the novel White is for the Witching (2009) by Helen Oyeyemi. “Well. I know of witches who whistle at different pitches, calling things that don’t have names.” What are you? Williams conjures a Creature along the lines of Frankenstein that in the end, is as much you as me.
curated by Connie H. Choi and Hallie Ringle
“WHAT ARE YOU?”
AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE J. WILLIAMS
Yasmine Espert, 2017
Stephanie J. Williams (b. 1981) is an interdisciplinary artist living in the northeast quadrant of Washington, DC. Her three-dimensional sculpture and stop-motion animations investigate our relationship to food culture. In particular, her visual emphasis on food consumption explores the complex narratives that humans struggle to digest, and often leave out of polite conversation. The following text is an excerpt of my interview with Williams, conducted in the summer of 2017. It demonstrates her attentiveness to material culture and its ability to create a theater of familiarity through a time-based medium. Whether producing soft-sculpture installations on the scale of Claes Oldenburg or meditative animation work that recalls videos by Simone Leigh (b. 1967) and Steffani Jemison (b. 1981), Williams creates pieces that require prolonged visual engagement.
Yasmine Espert: Let’s begin with the allegorical use of the balut, a boiled fertilized egg considered a delicacy in the Philippines, in your stop-motion puppet animation PINOY/PLOY(2016). This piece comments specifically on your Filipino and African-American upbringing. What beliefs about food did you have in mind when making PINOY/PLOY?
Stephanie J. Williams: When I’m making a sculpture, I think about making a meal with my mom. She taught me how to fully break down certain types of animals. Our relationship to food was to not waste things, to make use of the parts that might be considered throwaway, fringe, or disgusting. Although those words, “disgusting” or “fringe,” didn’t really enter my understanding of food until much later, when I came to understand what mainstream food was in relationship to what we ate and perceived. And so when I was making PINOY/PLOY, I aimed to make things that are specifically “disgusting” – that complicated [the] relationship between disenfranchised or throwaway people and throwaway pieces.
YE: At the center of PINOY/PLOYis the character Pinoy, a duck embryo who wears a white ruff collar, similar to what we might see in a painting by Frans Hals (1582/83-1666) or Rembrandt (1606-1669). Its sex is ambiguous. Its eyes are still shut. And the skin is shades of pink; there are no feathers. It’s body still in formation. What’s your relationship to the term “Pinoy” and the embryonic character Pinoy?
SW: I think that [Pinoy] was this indecipherable thing, this kind of vague thing, this unplaceable thing. This thing that seemed to be in between states. It’s in gestation but also unplaceable because a lot of people don’t recognize what a balut is as a food. And then, giving it a position of power…having a collar, this kind of very colonialist-hero European collar. I don’t know, it was a nice way of mixing up that narrative that I learned.
YE: Visually, how did you decide on its elements? It’s something that people might describe as…
YE and SW: …gross.
YE: To people who may not be used to eating balut, for example.
SW: True…I aimed at making it stereotypically gross. Something that was very visceral. Something that would get a physical reaction. And I like that as a way of pushing the boundaries of what is considered tasteful. Because it’s something that I would eat, most readily, and I didn’t think anything of it. As I got older, I came to recognize [it] as something that is disgusting. It’s not the be-all and end-all of my experience as a Filipino American, but it is a part of my upbringing. To see that as something disgusting – I wanted to explore [that] in the textures that I was playing around with as a materials person, something that is purposefully gross.
YE: Speaking of these commercial objects that you’re putting in your work, PINOY/PLOY opens on a still life of items in a dimly lit kitchen. Unhatched eggs used for balut and all-white angel statues from the Precious Moments company literally come to life in a sea of Uncle Ben’s Rice. [Laughter] Why did you choose to animate these commercial objects in particular?
SW: When you start thinking about what Uncle Ben’s Rice is, and what Aunt Jemima is…these are American icons that leave everybody stained. I picked them because they’re infamous for being problematic in how they have portrayed any kind of power structure. I picked them because when I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to consume these foods. My parents were very didactic in their way of teaching us about who we were in relationship to the mainstream. And they didn’t want us to be complicit in that conversation. So Uncle Ben’s was not allowed in our house. Aunt Jemima was not allowed in our house. I picked those specifically because they were very loaded.
YE: Did you understand as a child why they were loaded, or why your parents, for example, perceived them to be loaded? Were you able to articulate it?
SW: Probably not as I should have. My parents were very good at saying “You look different” [laughs] to the greater world. The world will never see you as being fully black, the world will never see you as fully Asian, you are this other thing. People might treat you differently because of that.” So, when you’re five or six you probably don’t understand what that actually means. I didn’t really understand that my parents were different races until I was much older. I could see them, but it really didn’t mean anything. I have this laundry list of things that became dogma in our house: I have to understand that racism is a thing: it’s something that I’ll experience. And when my parents tell me their stories of racism, I understand that the mood changes. They’re more serious. Perhaps more somber. They concentrate a bit harder on the words that they say when they talk to me about these sorts of things. But without the experience to back that up I didn’t quite understand what that meant until much later.
YE: Are you trying to make declarative statements about who you are, as someone that people may not understand? What is it that stop-motion animation allows you to say?
SW: It’s very much about the questions. When a conversation about race and culture comes up, usually, infamously, the whole “What are you?” question [comes up]. When somebody wants to play this guessing game: “Let me guess what race you are, what ethnicity you are!” I see it as an opportunity. Instead of “I’m going to explain to you.” “This is who I am,” I’m interested in further complicating, further nuancing, a situation that is already in flux.
for THE LINGERING SURVIVAL OF THE UNFIT, 2018
Four Projections with Sound
I began interviewing my family over the past year with the intention of filling in the gaps in my knowledge about where our family comes from, hoping that in unpacking our immigration story I would find a new way at looking at identity. What I found was that our story was not a new one and my research did little to fill the gaps, but point to how vast the gaps in my knowledge were as they pointed to how American my experience of the world is. This walk sequence was created in contemplation of present day migration stories, an accumulation of repetitive gestures of labor inspired by my Filipino grandfather’s participation in Bataan Death March during the Japanese occupation in WWII, a story that I never heard in school learning about American history. I’m interested in the ways that histories are perceived and how entanglements of hierarchies form from those perpetuated memory gaps and its influences on the world. I’m interested in my own gaps of experience as I reflect upon these stories as all too common negotiations of power. This stop motion has no established end — I will continue to walk these puppets until the puppets themselves are unable to function.
— Stephanie Williams, 2018 stephaniejwilliams.com
...m - a - r - c - h . . .
by John Ros, 2018
Flickering moving image. Picture after picture, frame-by-frame — moments transform to build narratives onto histories as formative ideas based in the lived experience. The moving image is so familiar; at once accessible yet so easily disregarded. Glimmering brightness and contrast allure as they confront our attention. They require little to view, but much to fully unpack. The moving image not only seeks our approval but does so in a way that comforts. Is this ancestral? Does our DNA reflect in the flickering fire of our ancient forebearers? Or is the recollection of the moving image nearer; memories laid flat before us in a way that bring us back to a comforting place — Saturday morning cartoons, first dates, historic news events, home movies? Regardless of instinctual attraction or not, the enigmatic moving image is mostly a passive interaction, echoing how much our overly-sensitized world has been placed before us.
Art is not passive, especially for the stop-motion maker. Moment by moment, Stephanie Williams activates directed spaces. Twenty-four frozen moments in time create one second of movement. Though rhythmic and perhaps largely automatic (or more aptly, reflexive) the process requires much time and energy. The thematic development of puppets, the carving, cutting, binding, layering, painting — all before they have even taken a step — creates inertia for the awaiting narrative. Researched source material cloaks the backdrop as Williams brings her characters to life.
Williams’ grandfather, Saturnino, was a survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Like many immigrant, first-generation American families, these stories become buried out of the necessity to move on and assimilate, building new life in a foreign land. Williams’ situation is made more complicated due to the fact that her parents are not from the same cultural background. Like many mixed households, survival, identity and assimilation enact their own complicated negotiation within the black and white world upheld by the main; this blurred space creates a smudge of grey. Identity goes rummaging for cues throughout the cultural past that inform how we carve out the spaces we stand in and view the world. This mélange of memory and tradition surfaces throughout time and develops the core of who we are.
For many, food is a nucleus that keeps families together. Williams’ experience is no different. She plays with materials much like she played with food as a kid in her mother’s kitchen:
'I used to think that when I grew up, I’d be a butcher. I had no interest in running a store nor providing any kind of practical service, but I liked that food as a raw material, when turned into a prepared meal, could be transformed into almost anything. I would prepare meals with my mother....Working together, I learned how to remove a turkey gizzard, how to prepare liver, how to clean a squid, about shrimp paste and fish sauce. This stuff is honest even in its pieces.'
This sense of blurring food as material starts to orient us in Williams’ visual flickering narratives; the primacy of devouring our fresh catch over the pulsing heat of fire. Here, Williams uses balut as a way to present and preserve her history. Seen to some a staple, others an exotic or daringly gross food, it was common in young Williams’ childhood. This starting point flinches in a way that turns ideas and expectations on their heads, presenting notions of survival and comfort in varied light. These fetal ducks take the place of the American and Filipino prisoners of war who walk the 60-70 miles from Saysain Point, Bagac, Bataan and Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell, Capas, Tarlac. Though details are obscured, this honest handling of material opens up the potency of the forced walk itself. The beat, the breath and the hum of Williams’ mother’s voice creates an anxious, orchestrated chorus of frenetic inertia winding us up like a toy with a key in its back, prompting each anticipated step.
Williams’ investigations into her personal familial history represent a deeper interrogation of our collective culture. Histories told and disseminated are so often contrived and cultivated for control or justification. Williams’ dedication to her craft, using the lens of personal identity and familial lineage, develops a larger story from which we can all learn. Formation lies in the resulting process. To be fully formed lies in the patience and fortitude from which time unravels. Narratives are built each and every day. The beat of slapping webbed feet forced to walk infinitum reinforces persistence — in integrity and discovery. This process unveils mysteries and uncovers truths in purpose which develops an honest history. Good, bad or ugly.
A POLITE DISTANCE
Brett Ian Balogh, Didier Morelli, Ruby Thorkelson, Stephanie Williams
Matthew Coleman, 2016 (CLICK HERE FOR A LINK TO CURATORIAL STATEMENT)
EMERGING FROM THE CURIOUS: Commonplace Anomalies
Anna Arabindan-Kesson, 2012
Starkly black and white, Emergence (2011) is a set of drawings formed in the hazy tonalities between light and dark, and the accumulative shadows of sketching and blotting. Faces appear out of blank spaces and clouds, arranged in a row pierced through the mouth by a rod. Their faces and necks both attach to, and disappear into, small round tumors given flight by growing and tapering tails. Across the white surface these sacks, shaped between a kidney and a gall bladder, ooze thick trails of ink; sometimes they splatter, as in sheet five. In sheet one they drip and embed themselves into splintered, bodily forms: nipples and fingers, darkening tubes and the odd eyeball. Crisscrossed through this spongy topography are ladders: thin vertical and horizontal strips, rising up, poking around and joining up. They seem to hold these nebulous objects together, while excavating their material form. They accentuate the volatility of the piece. Not unlike the wooden frame that provides Alex (2010) with his structure and his intangible immanence, these straight-edged forms inflect Emergence with a vital connectivity: an axis around which this morphing, squelching and consuming entity can settle. Williams invites us to add to the mass of shapes, because she wants us to see that despite their strangeness they evoke something like familiarity. An uncanny resonance between our interiority and the exterior world: Emergence amalgamates the processes we find both repulsive and curious into an ecological system redolent with visceral meaning.
Commonplace Anomalies are a little like the processes of the body we try not to imagine: ingrown follicles, flaking skin, and florid growths. We all experience them and, in Williams’ oeuvre, they become suggestive metaphors for the narratives that we almost never examine but remain integral to structuring our everyday lives. Creating an internal/external dialogue in this way her work portrays elisions: the stories that are never shown and the myths that remain to take their place. As Williams puts it, she is curious about what can “give flesh to the gaps formed between reality and one’s own interpretations of that reality.”
And so the unexplained takes strange shape, providing the backdrop for the construction of a multilayered, ecology: fecund, expanding and amorphous. Look, for instance, at her Anomaly (2005-2012) paintings: in varying sizes the plywood boards become backdrops for a close study of interiority. In the smaller paintings, mushroom like bulbs extend across flat, thickly painted, planes. Tendrils disassociate, growing into balloon shaped follicles, flower buds and teats. The resonances between these surfaces and cellular organisms are marked. They emerge – as if examined through a sharply lit lens – like glaring cross sections microscopically analyzed. In the larger paintings, organs hang within different colored surfaces. New forms emerge while others fold into themselves, settling into heavily painted backgrounds, kept in place like specimens in formaldehyde. Floating, fleshly, they bristle with thick brush strokes, their layers collecting like the textures of skin and hair and pooling blood. Williams veers towards the abstract and the surreal in the drooping forms, flattened background, and heady palette of Inert Space (2008). Extending horizontally with a shallow field of vision, unnamed shapes are interspersed and entangled forming the appearance of a jaunty skyline. Although small in scale it is full of affect: evocative of a sci-fi comic strip or the flattened designs of a Murakami papered wall. The arrangement of floating spheres, flickering anemones, globular bulbs and unfolding ribbons is both whimsical and extremely intricate. Carnivalesque dialogues occur between paint, shapes and space: there is hardly room for explanation, yet fantastical narratives emerge.
Williams never quite lets us outside the form of her artwork, even though she is excavating how feelings, stories and ideas collect and assemble in spaces behind and between. She thus gives form to the way our bodies, as Merleau-Ponty explained, can become the condition and the context through which we experience and generate meaning. Raised in a Roman Catholic environment, the implications of the body have always been central to her understanding of artistic production. While the corporeal is not simply a subject of Williams’ work, but offers her a mode of perception, it is not quite the same as saying the body is the message. Her painted canvases and drawings are bellicose with color, texture and depth, however we can never quite attach anything ready made to them: she maintains a willful misdirection.
In Skin Patch (2006) Williams creates a surface of pinky skin. Reminiscent of the smooth, glistening bodies of Barbie or Ken this extensive sculpture is punctuated by twisted hair follicles, made of black trash bags. The incorporation of the random patterns of follicles creates a surface reverberating with the tension of things out of place: but where do we put them instead? In this sense the patches return us to our own sensory worlds, and the constructions of identity that may lie within them (why doesn’t Barbie ever have body hair?). However the integration of the gridded form with the organic vitality of the epidermis (not unlike Lorna Simpson’s Wigs, 1994) also presents a powerful juxtaposition taking us back to a history of classification, modernist semiotics and language creation. This series of patches says something about the accumulative function of meaning making too, and the systematic construction of knowledge. Miniscule, the grey fingerlings of Scene 4 and 6 (2010) are covered in ridges, blushed with pinks, greens and sometimes hair. In Scene 1 (2009), these wax reliefs, mounted on glass, are formed into jeweled toes, crowned with a purple brain. Scene 5 (2010) shows a colored, wrinkled, belly sprouting a stalk. Despite their size these assemblages of organ-shaped beings have the quality of a tableaux vivant. An internal dialogue connects them into a series of knobbled and knuckled forms, ungainly yet perfectly poised in their three dimensional protrusions. This theatricality takes on a much more tangible sense in the sculptures of Edwin (2006) and Alex. Edwin, could be several of the Anomaly and Inert Space paintings come to ‘life’, replete with flesh colored limbs and wiry hair, he is malleable yet maintains his structure: even in your arms. Alex, Williams’ homage to the famous Castrati singer Alessandro Moreschi, is an elaborate exo-skeleton. Made to be worn the horizontal frame materializes the trajectory of a Castrati singer’s voice: it emerges from the wearer’s chest and expands out into the world. And so, literally an embodied narrative, Alex also formally embodies the gridded structures and organic materials that appear throughout Williams’ work. His tentacles hang, his heart glistens, he is a mass of connecting wires and threads. He is a system and a body: a mythic creature whose story takes on another life through his attachment to our bodies, he simultaneously turns our bodies into the medium for his connection to the outside world.
Like ecological systems, Stephanie Williams’ artworks emerge and grow out of forms we sense are, apparently, real. They curl, unfurl, discharge, drip and push into each other forming a body of characters that, sometimes dream-like and sometimes not, will entice, repulse, entreat and engage. Ripe, sensual and replete with a mysterious attraction they materialize, give form to, and embody the gaps, stutters and imaginings that line the apparently seamless social worlds we inhabit.
Katie Rubright, 2012
‘Woman is that creature who puts the inside on the outside. By projections and leakages of all kinds—somatic, vocal, emotional, sexual—females expose or expend what should be kept in.’
–Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God p.129
‘Art is of the animal. It comes, not from reason, recognition, intelligence, not from a uniquely human sensibility, or from any of man’s higher accomplishments, but from something excessive, unpredictable, lowly. What is most artistic in us is that which is the most bestial.’
–Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art p.64
A beefy thumb distends into a vaguely human but decidedly un-handlike form in Stephanie Williams’s ANOMALY no. 23. It recedes back into the untreated plywood before being severed at what would be the wrist point. This is skin, you think, but belonging to no body I know. Familiarizing the strange, or a perversion of the everyday defines our experience of the uncanny. But this is only a partial account. There is also a requisite element of menace, of ill will within these new bodies. What unsettles is the sense that the organisms are out of our league, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. They are not inert, though some seem to be resting. They ooze from dark holes, they refuse containment. Williams checks them within the panel edges, but the figures have an erratic frenzy suggestive of science class microscope slides, organisms caught and frozen under our gaze as they can never be in life. Hers is a world that teems, in a big hurry to embody all its possible genetic mutations.
The series of wax on glass Scenes features individual fingerlike forms aligned but not attached to each other, attended to by tiny sperm-tadpoles. The sharp right angles of the glass panels induce the scientific convention of using architectural forms to encase biological specimens, as with vitrines, mounting insects, and embalming organs in glass containers. But Williams exhibits not organs cut from a larger being but independent creatures, self-willed and untrustworthy. A defilement of the body is the source of our emotional experience of disgust, but Williams goes for more than a gross out. The fingers resemble our own but the edges are rounded, giving an unnerving sense of wholeness that desires no reunion with hands. An abrupt or accidental split with a body is nowhere here; the contours indicate completion, autonomy. Similar enough to feel related, the forms demand acknowledgment but not reconciliation. It’s as if parts of us staged a rebellion and moved off to start their own anarchic colony. Strange pilgrims, these.
But say the organisms returned and insisted on reintegration. Alex and Edwin are sculptures attached to human beings, more protrusion than symbiosis. They depend on a person to animate them, yet these pieces inhibit the movements of and physically burden the wearer. We’re a long way from the mutualism sustaining the swarms of digestive bacteria within our stomachs. The titles evoke Anglo human males, disrupting any attempts to disassociate their forms from our bodies, our ways of naming each other. There is no safe distance.
Williams’s palette never strays far from the vermilions and ochres of flesh tones. This is a depiction of skin, of course, but also an inference to blood. Thousands of capillaries running just under the surface are responsible for the health or pallor of our skin. In addition to melanin it is literally our blood that colors us. All the forms in Williams’s biological display are fed by blood, even engorged by it in some cases, further disconcerting the viewer. We see that they are nourished by blood without knowing how, like worms it is almost impossible to imagine their cardiovascular system. This emphasizes the figures as living things, tiny biofictions in an increasingly digitized world.
Tufts of curly hair or short sprigs adorn many of the figures. These are newborns, sprung into the world with the mechanisms but not yet the time for hair growth. A strategy emerges with constant rebirth as a retort to the decay of constant death. In an industrialized society marked by planned obsolescence and dematerialization, Williams insists on the biological, on the possibilities and aberrations of living things. All bodies carry death. It is only by being alive that it’s overcome, hour by hour. There is always the possibility. Life is not about cheating death but simply resists it, saying yes to every moment.
Our lives are wreathed by experiences we cannot translate into words. The ineffable meets us daily to reinforce that the brain is not the only organ where knowledge resides. Part of the resonance of Williams’s uncanny images is their circumnavigation of verbal language to something more immediate, more primal. Summoning an awareness that disregards words, the forms seem to proliferate as we confront them. They ring within as we look; yet even as we turn away, they remain.