March 5-April 14, 2021
Alexander Berggruen is pleased to present Brittney Leeanne Williams: The Arch Is a Portal Is a Belly Is a Back. This exhibition ran by appointment only at the gallery: 1018 Madison Ave., Fl. 3, New York, NY, 10075.
The new paintings and works on paper by Brittney Leeanne Williams in this show take influence from desertscapes in Victorville, a city northeast of Los Angeles where Williams spent part of her childhood. Williams transforms these Southern Californian landscapes into “emotional landscapes: representations of psychological states, memories, and emotional ties.” In speaking about her omnipresent red figure’s folded posture, Williams noted:
She bends in tiredness, she bends under the weight of heavy grief; she bends in negotiation for the ones she loves; she bends in prayer; she bends to pick up her baby; she bends to anchor herself to the ground; she bends in pleasure; she bends in caretaking; she bends because her back is out and her knees are all that’s left with strength; she bends.
A Passing Dance (2020) maps an emotional landscape in presenting three figures folding, in unison, into one another, while mountain peaks in the background accentuate their forms. Williams envisions figures kneading out sound from their diaphragms in their folded and bent positions. In the artist’s words: “The diaphragm takes center stage. A strong bellow, a moan and a song emit from the depths. The belly is the center of the prophet. This prophet speaks.” Each peak and valley, formed by the mountains and by the figures’ legs, seems to resonate a beat. Their song captures a feeling that carries as the figures march along their path. In mimicking the grandeur of the mountains, the figures effortlessly capture nature’s power through song.
Inside a framed expressionistic ocean scene, the two figures in Naomi and Ruth-Temper My Grief, Cool My Tongue (2020) are locked in a tense embrace, floating above a rushing body of water. The ocean pours out of the work’s painted border, hinting at a fiery sunset beyond the shoreline. The red bodies twist into one another and blur into the sky as they extend beyond the margins of the image. As the biblical story of Naomi and Ruth symbolizes enduring devotion, the figures here become one.
In many of Williams’s works, borders cannot contain the figures’ forms; the bodies often seem boundless. When speaking about identity’s vast confines, curator and writer Legacy Russell wrote in her 2020 manifesto Glitch Feminism: “Unable to see its edges, we are forced to live within it as a world in and of itself. This is why, in order to reimagine the body, one must reimagine space.” (1) In Williams’s The Swing of an Embrace (2021), a large figure looms overhead, weaving in and out of a painted frame. This frame is rendered in a green gradient that turns almost as black as the scene depicted in the doorway at its center. There, another smaller figure appears, echoing the larger, though more subtly bathed in a dim red light. While the smaller figure is contained in its doorway, the larger figure transcends boundaries.
The red of many of Williams’s figures might connote a rawness, a tenderness, and an emotional vulnerability. As Russell wrote: “A break, tear, rupture, or cut in skin opens a portal and a passageway. Here, too, is both a world and a wound.” (1) Williams’s female forms serve as conduits to viewing a dimension of Williams’s spirit. In her own words: “Her back becomes the keystone. She holds up what is above, fastening herself to what’s below, to make room so that something or someone may pass through.”
This exhibition marks Brittney Leeanne Williams’s first solo show with Alexander Berggruen, following her inclusion in the gallery’s group show Quarters (March 18-April 28, 2020).
Brittney Leeanne Williams: The Arch Is a Portal Is a Belly Is a Back ran at Alexander Berggruen (1018 Madison Avenue, Floor 3) from March 5-April 14, 2021. The exhibition’s preview is available upon request. For all inquiries, please contact the gallery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, London, New York, 2020, pp. 83-84, 101.
Brittney Leeanne Williams (b. 1990, Pasadena, CA) is a Chicago-based artist, originally from Los Angeles. Her work has been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami (Untitled Art Fair), London, Venice (Venice Biennale), Antwerp, Copenhagen, and Hong Kong, as well as in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. Williams attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2008-2009). She is a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant recipient and a Luminarts Fellow. Williams’ artist residencies include Arts + Public Life (University of Chicago) and McColl Center for Art + Innovation, among others.
The bent posture of a semi-abstracted female silhouette dominates 15 of the 17 artworks by Brittney Leeanne Williams, currently on view at Alexander Berggruen [March 5–April 14, 2021]. This show of paintings and works on paper made 2020–2021 embodies the Chicago-based artist’s investigations into the physical and psychological exhaustion of being a black woman in the United States. Sensuously folded, a recurring figure’s posture has been simplified as a smooth rounded arc to indicate the back. A few simple curves imply the breast and belly, and introduce a void beneath them. Variations come from other formal components that energize and solidify the work. In addition to her frequent use of red on the figures, which the artist discusses in various interviews as referencing the pulsing lights of ambulances in Chicago, Williams also includes subtle line work, elements of the natural environment as setting, and positions of arms and legs that create the positive and negative spaces in the compositions.
In Williams’ work, the negative spaces are just as much a positive form of the bent figures. She implies that all the crevices and surfaces are deserving of her affection, and our attention.
We’ve been keeping a close eye on the work of Brittney Leeanne Williams and her unparalleled explorations of the human figure in relationship with the landscape. By working with a single posture, the contorted or bent over body, the Chicago-based artist speaks of psychological states as well as the misshapen and emotional experiences of being a woman. […] Whether its shape reflects in the mountain range in the background or it carries tree-tops, has the sun setting within or an ocean underneath, gets rained over, or dissolved in the wind, it becomes a powerful symbol of different scenarios in which women bend, especially on a psychological level.
“These works expand on my interest in bringing together expressionistic, almost symbolic landscapes with geometric picture planes, arcs, and borders,” the artist told Juxtapoz about the particular element she was exploring with these pieces. “They bow, bend, and break out of borders while their feet inch into the beyond.”
Niama Safia Sandy
We are pleased to share with you a new essay, “Brittney Leeanne Williams: Black Women at/in the Bend,” written by New York-based curator, producer, and multidisciplinary artist Niama Safia Sandy. Through historical, societal, and spiritual lenses, Sandy explores Williams’s portrayal of the Black female experience and the portals Williams’s paintings open for Black women.
This essay was published on the occasion of Brittney Leeanne Williams: The Arch Is a Portal Is a Belly Is a Back (March 5-April 14, 2021) at Alexander Berggruen, NY.