Through Jan. 7, 2018
An audio tour is available.
“A Conversation with Philemona Williamson,” Thursday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Family Day, Nov. 12, 1-4 p.m.
“Master Class: PhilemonaWilliamson,” Saturday, Nov. 18, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Montclair Art Museum
3 South Mountain Ave.
By GWEN OREL
Bright colors, questing looks, symbolic imagery and whimsy inhabit the work of Philemona Williamson.
Many pieces have the bright attraction of children’s book illustrations, with the added value of layers of symbolism and depth.
The Montclair artist’s bold paintings and sculptures not only attract the viewer’s attention, they are designed to invite viewers to consider their own lives.
Williamson’s show, “Metaphorical Narratives,” opened last week at the Montclair Art Museum and runs through the first week of January.
It includes 20 paintings, made from 1988 onward, and is the artist’s first solo exhibit at the museum.
Born in 1951, Williamson is originally from New York City. She lives in Montclair and works in a studio in East Orange.
Her work explores personal history, often using symbolism and metaphor, bright color and whimsy.
The show is presented in tandem with another show, “Charles E. Burchfield: Weather Event.” [Montclair Local will cover the exhibit in a future article].
Where Burchfield’s work explores his view of physical nature, Williamson’s work delves into the mystery and wonder of
“The complexity of human nature, spiritual growth, and yearning” are all Williamson’s subject, said MAM Director Lora Urbanelli at a press preview with the artist last week.
WHAT IS MY IDENTITY?
Not usually a sculptor, Williamson opens the exhibit with a site-specific installation of four large Topsy Turvy dolls in the MAM rotunda.
They are inspired by an actual antique doll, displayed in a glass case. A Topsy Turvy doll is made of cloth. It is two-headed
and is white on one end and black on the other. The doll in the case has no clothes on, but traditionally there would be a skirt that could flip to show one head or the other, so that the doll could be black or white.
Williamson said the antique doll was given to her when her daughter was born.
Scholars are not sure who played with these reversible 19th-century dolls, slaves or white children. Possibly, slaves played with black ones that flipped over to be white when the overseer wasn’t looking. Possibly, white children wanted a forbidden “maid doll.” At least one scholar suggests the name of the character “Topsy” in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” may have come from the dolls.
Whatever their history, a two-headed, double-raced doll is undeniably rather creepy.
Williamson fills the corners of the rotunda with oversize dolls. They look at Victorian sculpture, William Couper’s marble “Crown for the Victor,” 1896, in the rotunda’s center.
The sculpture is female, and the dolls aren’t, Williamson said. The dolls ask, “What is my identity?” Her own child is biracial — Williamson is married to a Jewish man — and she grew up in a white house, where her father was chauffeur.
The dolls allude to the colors of flesh, kind of: one is black and white, like the original; another is pink and brown, a third, gold and black; a fourth, brown and beige. They are titled, respectively, “Topsy Turvy Charcoal,” “Topsy Turvy Blush,”
“Topsy Turvy Ochre” and “Topsy Turvy Terra-Cotta.”
“They embody humanity,” Williamson said.
Curator Gail Stavitsky said that Williamson “revitalizes folk art.” Stavitsky added that “The contemporary statement the dolls make is relevant to the artist’s paintings as well.”
RECURRING EMOTIONS AND SEMI-TRUTHS
Williamson’s contemporary statements are both personal, what Williamson called “semi-autobiographical,” and larger.
An example of the semi-autobiographical, “Shore Road,” painted in 1989, shows a young black girl falling out of a car, while the driver reaches out a hand.
Williamson tumbled out of a car when she was little, possibly from leaning on the door as it went around a bend, she said. The painting captures that moment of wondering if she would get back in the car.
While not everyone has a memory of falling out of a car and wondering if they will get back in, that feeling of fear and wonder is relatable.
Often paintings reflect emotions that recur to her. The two white girls in the back seat, who represent the daughters of the family her father worked for, weren’t really there at the time. The daughters of the house have remained family friends, she said.
“A Must See for the Entire Family,” painted in 1988, connects to Williamson’s husband. Because he is white and Jewish and she is black, the painting’s representation of a novelty act connects to her feeling of being a novelty as a biracial couple. Her husband owned a banner from a circus side show with “A Must See for the Entire Family” written on it, which inspired the painting.
A signature element appears in this painting: a shoe half off a subject. Shoes or slippers falling off, Williamson said, often show someone “not really ready to move on.”
That’s the case for her 1995 work “Curiosity’s Path,” depicting two children running, flinging themselves sideways to board a school bus, over water and shoals. That painting connects to the artist’s life in Montclair: there’s a nostalgia in remembering her child’s first day of school, how welcoming the principal was — her child literally jumped into the principal’s arms, she recalled.
That experience led Williamson to reflect on the different experiences of a child taking a bus to school in Montclair and a child taking a bus where he or she isn’t wanted. The gender and race of the two figures are indeterminate, which leads back to the artist’s use of painting to question identity.
It’s that kind of impression and symbolism that led to the show’s title, “Metaphorical Narratives,” said Stavitsky.
For Williamson, her paintings are “starting a conversation with the viewer.”
But it would be a mistake to think she always begins with story and theme: color and composition drive her equally. “Eventual Autumn,” painted in 2003, started with the color orange.
“I felt I needed intense autumn,” Williamson said. In the painting, two young people clasp hands, against an orange background. Leaves fall around them. The children are standing on baby dolls, with grasshopper-like figures at their feet. The children are thinking about “adulthood, childhood,” Williamson said. “Where am I in this world of leaves, this orange place?”
DRAWING BACK THE CURTAIN
One of the ways Williamson holds a conversation with the viewer in the show at MAM is by revealing her process.
In some of her later paintings, she allows drawings to show through, so the viewer sees outlines of figures in more than one place. In “Limbs,” 2016, Williamson’s largest piece to date, the head of a figure is drawn in two places.
“I love drawing,” Williamson said. “Why not show my drawing?”
Showing the lines pulls back the curtain on her process, she explained. “A Crooked Line” — which, like “Limbs,” was begun in New Orleans when she was artist in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center — shows one figure with three legs.
Another way that Williamson invites the spectator into her process is with the large site-specific work, “In the Studio,” a composite photograph printed on poplin that hangs on the wall in the Laurie Art Staircase.
Peter Jacobs Photography created the photograph of the hanging. Though the hanging is much larger than the studio wall itself, the collage of hanging items “recreates the feeling in my studio,” she said. Among the items hanging on the wall in the photograph are ethnic dolls, one missing a head; a child’s bathing suit, and a child’s black negligee.
The sexy negligee made for a small child amused Williamson. “When I was teaching a class, a parent-child class, a little boy went home and made an all-black painting,” she said. The mother was worried the child was depressed.
She told the mother to ask the child to tell her about the painting. “That’s mommy in her black nightgown, I love it so,” he said.
The little black nightgown in the collage reminds Williamson of that story as well.
The things that make up the collage take her to another place, she said. “They evoke memories.”
Evoking memories, considering the truth of memory, meaning and narrative: that’s how her studio wall affects her.
And that’s how Williamson hopes her show will affect the viewer.