October, 2008, Sue Williams: Project for the New American Century @ David Zwirner, Chelsea
Sue Williams: Project for the New American Century
11 September through 25 October 2008
David Zwirner Gallery, Chelsea
The paintings in Sue Williams’ latest show, Project for the New American Century, now showing at Zwirner, look like the outcome of a halfhearted attempt to put a human body through a meat grinder. Dismembered digits, deflated breasts, inflated anuses, socket-liberated eyeballs, shattered teeth, sizzled dendrites, unraveled intestinal tracts, pubic hair and other miscellaneous cilia swim through her canvases in paisley-like patterns that would be absolutely horrific if they weren’t so darn cute.
And therein lies the problem. In marked contrast to the seriousness of the social ills that are their putative subject matter—such as imperialism (“1-800-Empire”), the horror of war (“Small Kill Teams,” “Schools and Hospitals”), fast food globalization (“Happy Meals, The Next Day”), and nationalism (“Country First,” “American Enterprise”)—Williams’ paintings are cartoonish, even hip. The various viscera they depict stand in the same relation to actual guts and gore as Keith Haring’s figures stand to actual human beings. The reds in her palette quickly shade into pink, like lipstick, rather than brown, like blood. Otherwise, the colors come in bright design store neons: the key lime pie green that dominates “Golfing at Northwoods, ” for instance, or the creamsicle orange that shares the canvas with cotton candy pink in “Two Parties.”
Like the Democratic and Republican politicians whose essential similarity “Two Parties” intends to criticize, Williams’ paintings are more or less interchangeable. Sure “Some Ass,” a reminder that political and sexual crimes often travel on the same passport, is unique in featuring a dismembered female rump; admittedly, “Cole-Haan,” a reminder that what we blithely consume is often produced in sweatshops, throws a handbag and a high-healed shoe into the general carnage; ultimately, however, Williams’ show consists of a series of micro-variations on the aforementioned compositional theme.
The titles of the paintings, which were undoubtedly conceived after the canvases had dried, could be switched without impacting the meaning of the images to which they are affixed; they seem to have been tacked on in order to give the paintings the gravitas and relevance they lack as images. (My evidence: “Market Logic,” a Naomi Klein-inspired observation about how unregulated capitalism leads to imperialism, was initially titled “Sex in The City: Hot Fetus.” What’s the difference between neoconservative foreign policy and a television show? You tell me.) Which is too bad, really, because, as images, they artfully finesse the borders between figuration and abstraction, and are unintentionally quite pleasing to look at.
The traps of political satire are two-fold. First, the satirist must be wary of reproducing the phenomena he or she hopes to criticize; second, the satirist must be wary that critique doesn’t dissolve into a series of inside jokes. Unfortunately, Williams steps into both traps.
Williams admits that her work is motivated by a sense of guilt at living well as an artist in an affluent society whose elected representatives and captains of industry are responsible for so much global suffering. This is a noble sentiment, but the attempt to paint the relationship between American consumerism and American violence carries little weight when the results are so digestible as commodities: one can easily imagine “American Enterprise” or “Leo Strauss, Theoretician” hanging from the wall of an adolescent’s bedroom, between his reproductions of ‘60s-era concert posters. Williams’ paintings fail as political critique because they aren’t sufficiently disgusting.
Nor do they move forward any sort of political debate; their message isn’t at all “nuanced,” to use a once-favored liberal buzzword. To the questions, “why should we be against the Iraq War?” “what’s wrong with the philosophy of Leo Strauss?” or, “what are the effects of our consumption patterns on the third world?” the Project for the New American Century show gives only one answer: severed limbs. By being so reductive, Williams limits the size of her public to choir and thereby dampens the desired effect of her preaching (presumably, to change hearts and minds—or at least to shock and awe). It was difficult to watch as Williams explained the dour themes of her work to the nodding heads of the sybarites who showed up at Zwirner on the seventh anniversary of September 11th, for the opening of her show.
The reach of a severed hand, it seems, cannot exceed its grasp.