Kelli Williams


I'm going to skip the personal introductory blathering on this one and get right to the art. Anyone who likes my meandering dopiness can get some after I write about the work, down a few paragraphs.

Kelli Williams' art appears small and quiet from across the room. Then you get up close to it and you see that this is not the kind of art that jumps off the wall at you -- it's the kind that pulls you close, charms you, and then bites you on the neck. You may like that kind of thing or you may not, but it's still going to leave a mark.

Note that I haven't included any images with this review. That's because the images I can find from the show are absolutely terrible. They do the art no justice at all. Instead I'm going to have to describe it and exhort you to go see the show while you can (it's up until March 24, 2007).

Kelli is an obsessive painter. Nancy Baker, who is no slouch when it comes to obsession herself, said to me as we were squinting at one painting, "I paint with a one-hair brush. Kelli must paint with, I don't know, a half-a-hair brush." "Maybe she uses molecular tweezers," I suggested. We leaned in a little closer. One of the big worries I had at this show was accidentally putting my nose against the paint, or maybe spitting or drooling on it. Each work demands that you get as close to it as possible to search through it detail by detail.

Kelli's paint is almost perfectly smooth and matte, with a mix of hard edges and subtle blending, some of it looking almost like the bleeding of watercolors. It's the kind of painting that lends itself to comparisons with good old Hieronymous Bosch, but it reminded me more of Salvador Dalí's small panels with his otherworldly mastery of oil paint. Kelli's technique is actually some of the most absolutely enchanting, attractive, and delicious I've ever seen. Her flesh tones -- which cover most of the panels in this show -- are like different flavors of ice cream, slowly melting into one another. And her attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing: The face of one woman is clearly Madonna (the pop singer, not the Blessed Virgin) and yet it's painted no larger than my pinky nail.

Kelli's subjects, though, are largely deranged. She's clearly navigating the waters of gender, politics, and sex, but beyond that it's hard to say what's going on, because there's just so much going on. In any one painting you might find several satyrs engaging with women orally and vaginally, some men and women masturbating, a couple enjoying cunnilingus, some plants sprouting, some clouds going by, and some geographical features just sort of being. A couple of the paintings feature women who have been reduced down to backwards-facing heads on hindquarters, with nipples added to their asses. Attempting to pin down the main subject of any one of these is challenging, although a couple of the paintings are more straightforward than others. Still, even in her most focused works, I found myself wondering about the details: Is the shoe she's wearing important? What does it mean?

It's the sheer scale of these paintings -- not in actual size but in scope -- which brings up the comparison to Bosch, as well as the unclear symbolism. Of course Bosch's symbolism was perfectly clear to everyone when he was working; it's only over the centuries that we've lost the decoder ring. Kelli may have her own code, but it's far from clear to me that anyone else can understand it. She may not even understand it entirely herself, but I'm willing to bet she can explain most of it. I caught a glimpse, but I don't think I'm literate enough to figure it all out.

For example, let's look at those women with the nipples on their asses. On the surface this is just a literal illustration of how a man might objectify a woman as a sexual object: All ass and cunt and legs, with some nipples for sucking on, and facing the right way so she can watch him take her from behind. But there's also a connection here to Desmond Morris and his idea from The Naked Ape that the human breast -- an anatomical feature unknown in other primates -- evolved to replace the buttocks because of the upright human stance. Morris writes that male primates consider the buttocks to be sexually exciting, and since that's missing when humans have face-to-face coitus, human females grew substitutes on the front. So the breast/nipples/buttocks connection runs deeper than simple feminist stereotyping. (Also, I was immediately reminded of a Web page joke I made many years ago.)

Clearly Kelli is working with the objectification of women and other sexually charged subjects. But what I found interesting is she's doing so in a surprisingly even-handed manner which admits to the complexity of it all. While the works often championed by people like Edna are one-sided affairs, mainly concerned with how badly men treat women -- see Nicole Eisenman -- Kelli's paintings seem much more democratic: No one is spared. Men rape women, women manipulate men, everyone is broken and twisted -- sometimes literally, as on the Catherine wheels that appear in at least two of the paintings.

I think that because Kelli's work isn't large and stunning, she'll never be called a virtuoso, a genius. Because one of the things about genius is it tends to bully a bit. Einstein says "E equals mc squared" and now you can't look at the universe any other way: You've been invaded and converted. Picasso says "What happened at Guernica is bad!" and you're a pacifist, like magic. But an artist like Kelli is more interested in seducing you, slowly and with subtlety, until you find yourself going along; and then she abandons you to figure out where you are all on your own. She has no interest in conquest. She'd rather subvert.

This time, you've been drawn in by beautiful technique and creamy skin tones only to find yourself ogling wrinkled women with six teats or someone being anally penetrated with a baseball bat. Horror and revulsion rise up inside you, but at who? The artist? The subjects? Yourself? The world? God? Kelli isn't going to provide the answer to the question.

So far I've only discussed the paintings in the show; over half of it is drawings in colored pencil. It's easy to see the connections between her paintings and her drawings; in fact the subjects of each are the same, but the drawings lack the density of the paintings. Also -- unfortunately -- Kelli is not as inviting in this medium. Her tentative, spidery lines and uncertain draftsmanship all harmonize too closely with her subject matter, leaving no reason for the viewer to get involved. They're not bad, they're just direct, showing by this weakness the strength of Kelli's paintings.

Now for the personal blather, which I usually use as introduction, but decided to skip because I wanted to put the art right up front.

Kelli Williams is one of those rare people you meet online who is both passionate and intelligent; always willing to let you know when she thinks you're wrong but never insulting; able to accept different views without condescension. Or maybe we just mostly agree, I'm not sure. Sometimes I think getting along with people is really about finding people who play the same games as you. Well, whether we play the same games or whether Kelli is one of those rare genuinely rational and expressive people on the Internet, I like seeing her name online, usually attached to comments worth reading and responding to.

I'd been waiting for her to have a show and now it's finally here. I met her at the opening at Leo Koenig along with Nancy Baker, another fine upstanding citizen of the Internet. All three of us -- along with more rowdy and unpleasant people -- can be found arguing at Edna's blog (even if Edna seems to have abandoned us for now).

I'm not sure what I expected from Kelli's work. When I'd search for it online I'd find a few scattered bits and pieces which didn't seem to add up to much. But here she is with a solo show at the prestigious Leo Koenig. I know Koenig's gallery is prestigious mainly because it's on the ground floor on 23rd Street, and there are almost no galleries on 23rd, because while 23rd is technically in Chelsea and right in the middle of the gallery district, it's also one of Manhattan's large through streets and therefore certainly much more expensive than the surrounding smaller side streets like 25th or 27th. Also, I saw Nicole Eisenman there.

I'm not sure what I expected from Kelli, either, other than she'd have frizzy blonde hair. I don't know why, but the name Kelli sounds to me like frizzy blonde hair. I think I might have known a Kelli like that once. But Kelli doesn't have frizzy blonde hair at all. Meeting her was good, and meeting Nancy at last was great.

I also met Ashley Hope, whose work I'd seen online and who had a painting in Jack Tilton's "School Days" show. With luck we'll be hearing from her again soon.

After Kelli and Nancy and a couple of other people left in a cab for much more exciting doings I wandered to the gallery next door just to see what was happening. So here's a bit of advice I'd like to give gallerists who are putting something together: Don't title your show so people like me can make an easy joke. For example, if you call your show Quotidian, it's way too easy for me to write, "The works in Quotidian lived up to the show's title." I mean, come on, make me work a little, would you?


Hi Chris,it was really great meeting you after so long in the blogosphere. Your words about Kelli's show are so thoughtful and intelligent. Nice, very nice.I especially liked the part about her flesh tones being like ice cream. Her work is exquisitely seductive, and you are right... very democratic. Contrary to what I expected, I felt that she approached her subject matter with a great deal of tenderness and respect. No one was spared, everyone got equal time.

Aw Chris thanks for putting up this well thought out review.

Hey Chris,Thanks for watching my back at Pretty Lady. It all seems so Victorian - an insulted man threatening a lady, a chivalrous gentleman coming to her defense. Quick, fetch the smelling salts, I feel a case of the vapors coming on. I'm not going to engage any further with that nutcase (not sure why I commented in the first place) so am saying it here instead. O

Chris,I just ran into your blog while reading some of the postback on Hungry Hyena. I liked your writing and the non-nonsense style. The piece on Currin really opened my eyes (I always wondered what he was upto in his new anti-shock mode).Like you, I am an engineer very very interested in painting... I have checked out a couple of your works as well and you do have a good thing going (although I do not know how you mustered the courage and became a full time painter - that takes guts)... I also enjoyed reading the post on Kelly (maybe this will get me to the gallery and peer into Kelly's work closely).I was planning on adding your blog to the 'links' section of my blog. Hope that is ok with you...

Perhaps a portion of my artistry is the creation of Victorian environments, O!You are all falling under my spell...And yes, this was a lovely review, Chris. I shall have to raise my opinion of Leo a notch, although I highly doubt we shall ever become bosom companions.

Sunil sez:I liked your writing and the non-nonsense style.Thanks....although I do not know how you mustered the courage and became a full time painter - that takes guts...Guts and someone else to pay the bills. It's a lot easier to quit your day job when you get fired, collapse into depression, and have someone else in the family working to support you.I was planning on adding your blog to the 'links' section of my blog. Hope that is ok with you...You never have to ask to link to anyone, but thank you. Of course it's okay.I visited your blog and was capitvated by your mention of the Chola Bronzes. They're gorgeous! I've been reading more about the Hindu religion lately, which is kind of funny, since I guess I could just hang out more with my Indian friends. Then again, the one Hindu I'm really friendly with is about as religious as I am, so he's not really helpful in this regard.

I am writing this as an apology to Kelli. I made light of her views in jest but I think i may have insulted or offended her. I am not sure if there is another way to express my regrets other than this forum.

Ms. WIlliams, you are a brilliant and insanely talented artist. I am sorry if I crushed the chance to develop a friendship with you.

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