THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Aniko Berman
Two years ago, Amanda Williams presented her seminal project Color(ed) Theory (2014-2016) during the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. A native of Auburn-Gresham, Williams used the landscape of Chicago’s South Side as her canvas.
She located houses slated for demolition and painted them in a palette of eight vibrant colors inspired by products culturally relevant to the predominantly African-American area: bright orange (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos), for example, or electric blue (Ultra Sheen hair care). A gesture as provocative as it was simple, it highlighted, quite literally, the urban decay of the once vibrant neighborhood, and bore witness to its imposed decline as the now-vivified buildings collapsed under cranes like houses built of cards.
It engaged the surrounding residents, and offered a 21st Century antidote to the grand architectural legacy of Chicago, whose lofty mantle is synonymous with those revered, white, male, names: Burnham, Sullivan, Mies, Wright. Williams’ project deservedly garnered accolades as bold as the hues of her doomed structures, offering another profound demonstration of the socially-minded, politically-engaged art that exemplifies the current moment.
Williams’ “Chicago Works” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, organized by Grace Deveney, uses new art objects, installation and video as illustrative of the theme and its strength in the realm of social practice. A museum context arguably limits the power of such a large-scale public project.
However, this mini-retrospective provides something else altogether: the opportunity to approach this project, and a slew of other works, from a strictly aesthetic position, through an interrogation of form, line, color. This enlightening lens reveals the ambiguous nuances of her practice, the profound in-between-ness and simultaneity that allow her to address both social concerns and formal rhetoric.
A trained architect, Williams has gravitated towards painting and, as of 2004, devoted herself fully to the latter practice. In works such as There is a Past Tense (Diptych) (2006), Williams’ interest in the effect of color and the flatness of the picture plane is nascent. These works are of interest mostly for their demonstration of the painterly concerns that she later blows up and investigates on a giant scale.
In this light, the Color(ed) Theory houses become monochrome abstractions writ large, inspiring the same experiential and visual engagement as Yves Klein’s absorbingly deep-blue canvases; or Stanley Whitney’s vibrating color fields; or Carmen Herrera’s simmering experiments with shape, color, and construction.
Amanda Williams, Flamin’ Red Hots from Color(ed) Theory Suite, 2014–15. Color photograph, Courtesy of the artist and McCormick Gallery.
Similarly, It’s a Gold Mine/Is it a Gold Mine? (2016-2017)—a cube of imitation gold-leafed bricks salvaged from South Side wreckage—addresses desire and decay, and also recalls the cerebral spatial play of minimalist sculpture. These art historical forebears sought to disclose essential properties, and so does Williams in concept and in form. Her materials and structures serve her own two-fold investigation of the essence of a wall, a building, a home, a community: What does it mean and how does it do that?
In works such as Englewood is Iraq? (2017)—a multi-layered paper construction that features a map of the titular neighborhood overlaid with a map of Iraq—there’s an ironic take on the reductive association between the two “war zones.” Williams uses the tension between positive and negative space to great effect, a formal conceit she employs in Color(ed) Theory (her painted houses contrasted with the surrounding vacant lots).
Such an effect is echoed in a site-specific installation at the exhibition’s entrance. In She’s Mighty, Mighty, Lettin it All Hang Out, a single lonely salvaged brick is set amidst a wall-sized grid of fool’s gold ones. Literally blocking off part of the exhibition space, the intervention evokes profound questions regarding demarcation and physical agency.
As Williams’ preoccupation with contrast—of spaces, colors, forms, neighborhoods, demographics —becomes apparent, she asks how highlighting or breaking down difference can perhaps serve the opposite task. Operating at the intersection of architecture, design, social practice, and more traditional modes of visual art, she herself embodies that gesture. Her work is about race, urban planning, economics, and it is also about color, form, and composition. She doesn’t so much unify those concepts as deconstruct, reconfigure, and challenge them to forge relevancy and insert new meaning.
On the eve of the 2017 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Williams is again quite busy. A designated artist for Chicago’s Year of Public Art, Williams has a concurrent project at The Arts Club and another, slated for September, in which she will continue her interest in the formal and cultural properties of gold across a number of bus benches in the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood.
At The Arts Club, Williams has staged an architectural intervention in the club’s garden, inserting a secondary fence into the existing one, upsetting the latter’s physical authority. Titled Uppity Negress, the piece challenges the stereotype of black women who “have forgotten their place,” a defiant and insightful gesture, at once formal and culturally-loaded. The provocation asserts with power and wit exactly where she stands at a crucial juncture in Chicago’s cultural make-up, crafting a timely new identity as artist, architect, and citizen alongside those revered male icons of the past while looking to the future.
Aniko Berman is an art writer based in Chicago and Director at Monique Meloche Gallery. She previously covered the art world in New York, writing reviews and artist interviews for various publications including Flash Art International.