A painter, a sculptor, and a weaver: These three trailblazers may be working in very different ways, but they are all at the vanguard of their fields.
Robin F. Williams
The long tradition of figurative painting has had its ups and downs and its dead ends, but it has proved remarkably resilient in the long run: Artists as diverse as Dana Schutz, Elizabeth Peyton, and John Currin have found ways to make it fresh and exciting. The latest painter to stop viewers in their tracks with pictures of people is the Brooklyn-based Robin F. Williams, who recently showed a suite of new works, “With Pleasure,” at the Los Angeles gallery Various Small Fires. With a grasp of bold color and scale, she has especially excelled at painting monumental women who hold the picture plane commandingly, but who bring some humor to the party too. “I love giving the women in the paintings the agency to tell the viewers to fuck off,” says Williams, 35, with a laugh.
The characters at the center of the compositions sometimes look annoyed, as in Alexa Plays Ball, in which a woman clutches a football while she in turn is clutched and held aloft by a man; both are naked. In Ice Queen, a nude woman on her back, legs in the air, has a massive smile plastered on her face. Is she grinning and bearing it? Or laughing at our looking at her? Williams is aware of the tension in those possible readings. “There are psychologically complex things happening,” she says.
Williams grew up outside of Columbus, Ohio, and started painting at an early age. “My grandmother took me to some art lessons when I was 5,” she recalls. “A woman was offering them in the basement of a community center. I saw her every week for three hours on Wednesday nights, until high school.” She then attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she started out studying illustration. “I thought I would have a very practical job as an illustrator, which I later learned no longer existed,” she says. That training, however, came in handy as she transitioned to painting, giving her work graphic oomph and a sense of balance.
Not that the mid-aughts, when she graduated, were a great time for the kind of work that she does. “I’ve been painting figuratively since 2006, and I was aware that that mode wasn’t considered seriously then,” she says. “But I think I’ve always really tried to paint what I wanted to see, and just shut out the other noise.”
Williams initially depicted children and adolescents, then moved into a body of work about men that was focused on the idea of American masculinity. Those pictures—full of odd details and intense color palettes—were “the furthest toward realism, and with the least humor,” she says now. Sometimes her men appeared as secondary elements in off-center still lifes, making them about as important as a plant or a vase. In the current pieces, men are part of the story, but the eye is drawn to the women. Her version of a Picassoesque bathers scene depicts a beach setting with two nude women holding a naked man upside down by his legs. He looks tickled to be there; they look like they are holding the weight of the world. Like many of her current works, it’s funny, and then it’s not.
To those art-world denizens who like to dabble in a theoretical approach, Williams is providing catnip in the way she has exploded and rethought ideas about the gaze—that objectifying view of women by men, or of a subject by a viewer. “I like flipping the assumption of who came upon whom first,” Williams says. “Some of these women are saying with their bodies and their expressions, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting for you.’ The implication is that the viewer was their idea, instead of the other way around.”
It’s that kind of big-picture thinking that has led Williams to success with collectors. She paints only some 12 to 15 canvases a year, and is starting to work with Pace Prints to produce works on paper too. She is keenly aware that her success relies on not simplifying or smoothing over contradictions and conflict when it comes to sex and gender, pictorially and otherwise. “There’s something that can’t quite be reconciled” in her paintings, she says. “And that is continually exciting for me.” —Ted Loos
Woody De Othello
The artist Woody De Othello is a CrossFit devotee, so it’s hardly surprising that his work, too, is extremely physical. He makes large, intentionally clumsy ceramic sculptures that emulate and distort household furniture—stools, lamps, nightstands, and urns—and oversize appliances, like a wall-mounted telephone with a glossy red tongue for a receiver. It’s a theme he began four years ago while at the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco, where he made “a big-ass neti pot” based on the one he used for his persistent allergies. “I was in this mind-set of anthropomorphizing everyday objects,” De Othello, who is now 28, says. “I made the big pot with a fingernail at the end of it to reference picking your nose. If it makes me giggle, I’ll try to make it.”
For De Othello, who was born in Miami to Haitian immigrants, the California dream had less to do with beaches, surfing, Pilates, and kale Caesar salad than with ceramics artists. “Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, Ron Nagle, Ken Price—all West Coast,” he says. “I’m in better conversation with their work in California than in South Florida. I had this vision of living somewhere, but I didn’t know where it was. The longer I’m here, the more I realize it was the Bay Area. It’s what I was dreaming of.” He currently works out of a one-story stucco building in El Cerrito, an endearingly retro suburb just north of Berkeley. There’s a modest kiln behind the metal roll-up door, and an assistant, a friend from school, helps him roll out clay on a press to make table legs for a new piece to be featured in a solo show at the San José Museum of Art. The space is smaller than you might expect for the ambitious scale of the work.
In 2017, as De Othello was completing his MFA studies, the gallerist Jessica Silverman, who is now his dealer, discovered him at a school-sponsored open studios event where he was showing various sculptures, including a yellow ceramic cat scratching post and that neti pot. She had to pinch herself not to offer him an exhibition on the spot. “He had an infectious spark—and his work looked so different than other ceramics,” Silverman recalls. She brought him to the Armory Show in Manhattan that same year, signed him on a few months later, and hosted an ambitious solo show in the fall of 2018. He was subsequently picked up by Karma in New York, where he had another solo show this past summer.
Barely out of school, De Othello has participated in the Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art; the 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, in Slovenia; and the Bay Area Now 8 show, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He also created a series of bronze sculptures of stretched, intertwined body parts and surrealistically melting clocks for the San Francisco International Airport. For all of his achievements, he says he was especially pleased to be included in Art Basel Miami Beach last year. His parents still live in Florida, and he visits them often and calls them multiple times a week. “I’ve always, always dreamed of being at that fair,” he says. “All my family got to come see my work. That was so cool.” He’ll be in Miami again in December, with a new eight-foot-tall bronze fan, which the artist describes as exploring “the conceptual history of breathing.”
Like his enormous fan, De Othello says, his lumpy HVAC sculptures, which he presented in his first solo show, reference air quality, and “thinking about my body taking a breath.” They are also about the bodies of Africans who were brought to the Caribbean and worked to death. And about Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.”
“I wanted to do something subtle, where if you didn’t have that train of thought, you could look at that AC unit as a formal thing. It’s weird, its center is sunken, it’s having a hard time. Imagine what it would sound like if it were an actual working thing? I like to think that a lot of the stuff I make is a catharsis,” he says. “They’re like vessels to place our bad juju. Put it in this thing, let this object have it so we can go about with more lightness and openness.” —Glen Helfand
Lake Mexia is a short, hot drive from the small town of Mexia, Texas, where the artist Diedrick Brackens was born. In 1981, three black teenagers drowned there while in police custody. Apprehended for marijuana possession, they were being rowed across the lake when the boat capsized. All three teenagers died, but the police officers survived and were later acquitted of any wrongdoing.
The deaths occurred eight years before Brackens was born, but he heard different versions of the event “from every adult in town,” he says, and ultimately made an elliptical but powerful artwork out of the trauma: a golden tapestry that shows a pair of silhouetted black figures fishing with their hands, with three feisty catfish evoking the boys’ spirits living on in some fantastic way. Featured in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial in 2018 and at the New Museum, in New York, this past summer, it has become his most acclaimed work. It captures his feeling for textiles and textures, his fragmented and fantastic narratives, and his interest in the legacy of racial injustice. It also has an emotional current not often seen in contemporary art—a tenderness and vulnerability that leaves people feeling uneasy, reaching for clichés about his work being “poetic.”
Now Brackens, who is 30, has a new weaving hanging in his studio that touches on this narrative, while also evoking Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight. The scene in If You Feed a River, which the New Orleans Museum of Art has acquired, has great tension: Two dark figures appear entangled with white ones in what could be a romantic or a violent interaction. The palette is darker: a slate black sky set off by a bright moon with catfish, again, swimming in the water below.
“I’ve been thinking about catfish for a while, relative to Southern identity and heritage—how much they’re in the landscape and food. They are seen as scavengers or bottom-feeders, the lowest form of fish you might eat, but I like the idea of elevating them to the level of tapestry. They’re my spirit animal,” says Brackens, from his small studio in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where two looms take up most of the floor space and piles of weavings take up the rest. (He shares the studio building and house in front with the fiercely talented and also fast-track artist Genevieve Gaignard—“my best friend, my roommate, my everything,” he says of her.)
Brackens’s catfish offer a way of updating motifs from Renaissance tapestries, which generally feature more stately animals like horses or unicorns. But that’s far from his only historical reference, as he works to combine different cultural traditions, including the stripes associated with African weavings, especially kente cloth, and the improvised patterning of American crazy quilts. As the Hammer curator Erin Christovale puts it, “He’s speaking through this formal perspective about his identity as a black American.”
Brackens uses both commercial and natural dyes for his tapestries—Lipton black tea is a favorite. “It’s connected for me to being black, queer, and Southern. In Southern slang, ‘tea’ is another way to talk about gossip. ‘Come over, what’s the tea?’ ‘Spill the tea.’” His choice of cotton, too, is loaded, because of “its relationship to slavery—it being a king crop in the South and in Texas.” He remembers hearing older relatives talking about picking cotton: “They described the weight of sacks and the backbreaking work, or wrapping their hands so they’re not eaten up by the thorns of the boll. Now I get to do these beautiful things because I want to, not because I have to. It’s a way to honor that history,” he says.
Brackens began weaving in college at the University of North Texas in Denton, when a professor suggested he take a textile course. He got his MFA in textiles in 2014 from the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco, then landed a job the following year running the fiber program at California State University, Long Beach, which brought him to Southern California. He stopped teaching this spring, after winning several cash awards, including one from the Studio Museum in Harlem. Jack Shainman Gallery, in New York, is giving him a show next spring.
Fiber artists tend not to get a lot of attention from the contemporary art cartel, but Brackens is proving an exception: He’s one of the few working today who makes the age-old craft seem relevant, even urgent. He draws, too, as preparation for his tapestries, but the loom is his tool and instrument for improvisation. “Weaving is where the invention is for me, where I do things on the fly,” he says. “As much as you’re acting on this machine, it’s acting on you too. But there’s so much room to coax out these emotive qualities and lines and gestures from these simple yarns.” —Jori Finkel
Photographed by Max Farago.