Grass Like Paper Cuts by Justin Williams at COMA Chippendale sees the gallery’s window opening up into a fairy tale. Set against a background wall of emerald green is a painting of two figures picnicking in the woods, the sky dark indigo behind them. As one brings a basket of fresh fruit to his companion, she stares – at the viewer or perhaps into the distance.
These layers of mystique run through all of the works in the latest solo exhibition by Williams – an artist born in Australia of Egyptian heritage, who now lives in Santa Fe in the US. It is only upon closer inspection that the viewer can find small holes on the paintings’ surfaces, the result of Williams sanding down layers of the canvas, creating a texture akin to ancient frescoes.
The windowfront work, We crossed through places and we walked through high and low hills. Jadonna and Lord, 1883 (2023) brings to mind Édouard Manet’s 1863 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, especially in the pose of the central nude figure. But instead of reinforcing the male gaze as in the case of Manet, Williams has stripped the male also, and positioned him in an act of leisurely servitude. Whether the two are resting from a journey or recovering from a romantic encounter, their pose is one of comfort and companionship.
One doesn’t need to look far to see art historical references in Williams’ work, yet his paintings are recognisably him. Storytelling is evident, where each character feels significant despite their seemingly mundane setting or pose. Add to that the push and pull of longing, isolation, hope and the idea of being an outcast, and it’s clear that Williams is an artist skilled at capturing people and humanity while building beyond what’s real.
Take for example There was a glittery beaded ninja turtle, it was the finest gift I had ever received (2023), a self-portrait of the artist mending a patch-decorated jacket. Already much can be discerned from the title, worded as if the artist is speaking directly to the viewer. Positioned against a yellow-gold background, the figure sits on a chair with the jacket on his lap, hands seemingly too large to properly grasp at the thread. Nostalgia is at play, with the ninja turtle patch in view and another of the Australian flag. At one point or another, don’t we all tug at the thread delicately connecting present us with past lives?
Subdued tones feel matte and heavy, almost like oil pastel instead of paint, but the colours together draw the eyes in and allow them to linger. The most vibrant work pictorially and thematically is perhaps You’ll sit soon (2023), reportedly a divergence from some of Williams’ darker stories. Again, the title can be read as a word of comfort or encouragement, with the pictorial plane bordered by flowers and foliage.
This is Williams’ third solo exhibition with COMA, among a handful of group inclusions. Drowning Men Are Supposed To in 2021-22 centred on anxiety, danger and discomfort; even in moments of leisure where a saxophone plays, a scorpion lurks, ready to attack. Grass Like Paper Cuts has sustained this idiosyncrasy while offering a fresh direction, lighter though no less beckoning.
Grass Like Paper Cuts is on view at COMA Chippendale, Abercrombie Street, Chippendale Sydney until 7 October; free.