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Adrian Williams deserves a serious "thank you" from the city of Winnipeg. As one of the founding members of the Royal Art Lodge, his work with the collective — quirky drawings and paintings that take aim at the absurdity of North American culture — has drawn international praise and laid the foundation for Winnipeg’s burgeoning arts scene. Now living in Berlin, his solo work still evokes a strong sense of play, though it is punctuated by a greater emphasis on collage and fantastical nods to European iconography.

This Wednesday, his new exhibit, Verses Vs. Verses, a collage of work that focuses on "hyperbolic narrative imagery of Medieval art," premieres at Toronto's Neubacher Shor Contemporary. TORO spoke with Williams about the importance of humour in art, psychoanalyzing his work and what it would take to bring him back to Canada.

You studied fine art in university. Is it necessary for artists to have a classical education?

I think, probably. But a lot of people would say "no." I really believe in art history. It’s an absolute prerequisite. And drawing. If you can’t draw, you can’t think in certain ways.

Movements tend to be defined by groups of like-minded artists, who converge in a city (the Surrealists and Dadaists in Paris, the Movie Brats in L.A.). Did the Royal Art Lodge consciously try to advance Winnipeg as an art centre.

No, it was very organic. It was for the absolute love of drawing and hanging out with other people who were doing really interesting things. We were young and light-hearted and arrogant at the same time. Our success took us by surprise. It wasn’t intentional with a capital "I."

The collective’s process was such that many of you would work on one piece, with each artist spontaneously reacting to the other’s decisions. Does that collaborative process still inform your work?

It doesn’t except that I draw a lot inspiration from that same group. There’s a lot of stealing and appropriating when you’re developing your style. I think a lot of them are doing some really strong work.

Why do you live and work in Berlin now?

It’s cheap and it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of good and bad art there. I’ve run into quite a few people who have too much money — I don’t know where they get it — that’s wasted on giant projects that might have meant something to, maybe, Jeff Koons in 1985.

AdrianWilliams_untitled.jpgA lot of your art is funny. Should art be funnier in general?

If I can’t find a bit of humour in a work, I’m usually not interested. But then there’s art that’s simply sublime. A Jackson Pollock is just not funny, but it’s beautiful.

You can go to an overtly funny exhibition and the audience won't even crack a smile.

Yes, that’s disappointing. I think art has been so disconnected from — and I hate to use this term — "the popular discourse," such that people feel a responsibility to take it more seriously than the artist. Toronto’s General Idea was hilarious. Those guys probably tried to make each other laugh really hard.

Why do figures in your new work appear faceless?

There’s too much information in a face. I’m trying to give body language the jurisdiction. A filmmaker could make a shift of eyes much better than I could. I’m part of the painter clan so I’ll speak for a lot of us: portraiture — not all of it — can be a bit dull. I like photographers like Vancouver's Jeff Wall because he’s fabricating every image.

You use found objects in your work. Do you find an object and create around it? Or do you begin with an idea, and then find objects that best express your vision?

It’s exactly both. They work together. I’ll find a pattern on the inside of a book cover, or something, and say, "I don’t know how, but I have to work this." Accidents play such a huge part, too.

Another motif in your work is women transforming into their natural surroundings — waves, clouds, smoke, trees, etc. What is the idea behind that?

Wow, that’s true. I haven’t really thought about that. The look is first and foremost, but I always get suspicious of aesthetics. When I get into Freudian self-analysis I always come up short.

The Royal Art Lodge’s subject matter seemed "contemporary North American." Your art now has an Old World proletariat look.

People who like and hate me have accused me of being a Marxist. But to the point, there’s something aesthetically disappointing in the contemporary world. For example, there are so many right angles in North American architecture. In Europe, doors are almost always placed in corners so there’s an inherently communal feel to every street corner. I really love the European aesthetic.

Will you come back to Canada?

I have to wait for Stephen Harper to get out first. It’s just too heartbreaking.

3 Comments | Add a Comment
Politically, all the more reason for Adrian to return to Canada and oust Harper. What we need now is an articulate, travelled, and informed electorate to counter the Harper regime. Adrian and the art he creates represent that . Entry back into Canada might be a problem. His art influences and challenges the viewer to think openly and interpret. This is anathema to The Reform Party, I mean Progressive Conservatives.
Glad to see you doing well Adrian.
I miss Winnipeg... when we where all young and light-hearted and arrogant...
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