Pilgrims, Betsy Ross, and Westward Expansion’s link with toxic masculinity are all invoked in the titles alone of Sue Williams’s suite of paintings, the newest slate in a fiery, multi-decade career of social critique. The collages and canvases shown here, each whorled by an internal force, are like the wreckage of a natural disaster—or of a country. The American dream, the violence of the contemporary United States, and the very promise of democracy itself are all up in the air.
Translucent swaths of color, small-lettered and spiraling words and phrases, anthropomorphic figures and creatures (or parts of them), and most prominently, the bare canvas itself, make up the visual vocabulary of these paintings. Williams’s easy, calligraphic line lingers atop the surface of the canvas—you have to look closely. “Your badge no.?” reads the tiny text beside the mere suggestion of a scene: a foreshortened body writhes beside the blue and red glare of police lights and drops of red paint that can only evoke blood in Frank Lloyd Wright Prison (2020). But in using a representational palette that includes not only modern ills, such as the glare of electric police lights, but also foundational symbols, such as pilgrims and the Betsy Ross flag, Williams argues that the violence of contemporary America is not an anomaly, but rather a violent culmination centuries in the making.
Sue Williams, Frank Lloyd Wright Prison, 2020. Oil on canvas, 51 x 61 inches.