“Overcoming Depths” Essay on CHARLES WILLIAMS exhibition “Swim”

17 Sep

Overcoming Depths  

By Martina Dodd for Morton Fine Art

Charles Williams’ oceanscapes capture the dangerous beauty of the sea while simultaneously addressing his most personal and private fears.  His large-scale oil paintings of foam covered oceans are dimpled with waves and movement that submerge the viewer under a wave of intensity and serenity.   By actively examining his emotional response to the dark and murky abyss conveyed on canvas, viewers are urged to do the same with their own fears.

With shallow breaths, a quickened heartbeat and trembling hands, Williams, wading waist high in the water, snaps photos of waves as the ocean swells around his body. Once out of the ocean and back in his studio, he works from these images, which are often shaky and imperfect, to recreate them on canvas. The shakiness of the photographs do not take away from his hyperrealist paintings but symbolize his relationship with the sea. Williams recalls always having a fear of the dark, and the unknown depths of the sea seemed to be the darkest place of them all.  This phobia intensified at the age of eleven when he nearly drowned while playing in the ocean with his cousins. By forcing himself to wade in the water, the relived fear of his youth vividly translates through his camera and then again through his paintbrush.

This new body of work for his solo exhibition Swim at Morton Fine Art includes several figurative pieces – literally placing the artist within the artwork.  Unlike his large oceanscape paintings, which are meticulously detailed and based off of actual images, his self-portraits are created freehand and intuitively from his mind’s eye. Releasing himself from the restraints of measuring tools like grids and rulers, Williams’ intent is to capture his state of being rather than his physical attributes. His self-portraits purposefully omit parts of his face and vary in skin tone dependent on his mood. Williams longs to experience what he describes somewhat romantically as, the “liberating freedom of enjoying the water without fear”.  But his anxiety associated with the ocean coupled with the racial rhetoric surrounding swimming in the South has left a profound impact on Williams’ life and art.  

His aesthetically rich paintings span psychological and cultural realms by referencing contemporary and historic events in his life.  As a child Williams was taught that he could do anything he put his mind to, but after Williams’ close call with a watery death, he started to doubt this mantra and began to internalize the stereotypes he heard from his peers claiming that black people could not swim.  Growing up in South Carolina and hearing limiting and oppressive phrases like this led Williams to believe that there was something inherently wrong with him (and those of his complexion)  that prevented him from swimming.  With these thoughts still lingering in his mind, Williams’ work challenges the pejorative talk he once heard in his youth and still occasionally hears in his head today. Both therapeutic in nature and rebellious in spirit, his paintings address the universality of fear and analyze the origins and implications of racially motivated negative stereotypes.

As much as Williams strides to overcome his aquaphobia, his work is still very much based in and derived from his deep seated fear of water and the dark.  Nighttime study, along with his Lost and Found series, depict the ocean as it exists in darkness.   These pieces allow Williams to not only study the water at night, but to confront the monsters hidden under each wave.  In Nighttime Study, Williams represents the waves through texture by making both the ocean and the backdrop black. Akin to being blindfolded and having to read through touch, the waves are distinguishable only by the heavy impasto strokes of his paintbrush. Finding interest in the emotive contrast that different variations of light provoke, Williams uses the natural light of the moon in Lost and Found to reveal the water as it reaches the shore.  With flashlight in tow, Williams provides his own light when needed to explore troubling illusions in the dark.  The light, whether from the moon or his flashlight, serves as a tool of protection helping him subdue the fears that consume him both physically and mentally.

Although his insecurities surrounding the water may seem to overwhelm him and dominate his work, Williams has never allowed the fear to overpower him or dictate his life.  By revealing fear and exploring the idea of painful experiences within his paintings he hopes others will find the inspiration to confront their own personal fears as well.  Like the light that reflects off the ocean, Williams’ near death experiences are reflected off of each of his paintings- divulging his past to discover his future. 

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