Antoine Williams makes monsters. Except they're not monsters; they're us. The hybrid half-animal figures that populate his collaged paintings are warped by generations of structural racism, and express the trauma of forced dysfunction. But there's hope within the horror, new abilities that emerge from the distortion as Williams's figures adapt to survive it.
Williams's exhibit Kidnapped Pagans debuted in Charlotte on a grand scale last year, shown in the Mint Museum as well as in public spaces on kiosks and the sides of buildings. Independent curator Jonell Logan organized that show, as well as this iteration in Raleigh.
At Anchorlight, the show occupies two disconnected galleries. The front gallery features many recent paintings with the Chapel Hill-based artist's distinctive distressed surfaces and layering of collage and drawing. An inner gallery features an installation of nine life-size figures in profile, wheat-pasted around three walls of the room in a kind of procession under duress.
The substrate of Williams's paintings is a layered collage of color washes, often in the pinks and greens of vintage house paint, and a collage of newspaper and magazine pages that he sands, peels, and paints on. Despite the violence of these processes, the surfaces are oddly static, an image of conflict sustained over time until it becomes daily life.
Williams draws animal-human hybrid characters on top of that surface. One of his longstanding recurring characters—and a kind of anti-hero within his oeuvre—is a man with sagging pants, no arms, and a pair of chicken legs jutting straight up in place of a head. In this show, Williams's characterization has grown more sophisticated and expressionist; in one work, the figure stands among chickens that have arms for the back halves of their bodies.
Bodies burst and dematerialize into splatters and scrawls. "Knife and Wound" is the most spectacular image in the first gallery, containing a figure in the corner whose torso explodes into a cloud of scarred signification, including tufts of feathers and fur, horns and teeth, and a single sharp-nailed thumb. The cloud terminates in the figure's torso, headless, with its hands folded behind the head, as if commanded to freeze by a cop. Collaged pages have been peeled off, leaving rectangles of underpainting to show their removal, giving the overall impression of a U.S. map—traumatized, internally erupting.
The contents of the second gallery are stark compared to the colors and layers of the first, which makes the dehumanization of black subjects as animals and products more chilling. Hand-drawn figures in black and white proceed around the room's perimeter in profile, most of them variations on a hoodie-wearing figure. They are humanoid with animal protrusions on their heads and backs. Crocodile spikes or a rhinoceros horn tear through the hoodie's fabric. On a few, the drawstrings become antennae or tentacles.
Some of the protrusions, however, are cultural, not animal. One figure, with a shark's face, has Crisco cans protruding from its back. On the only apparent female figure, a cluster of long swords jabs out of the head.
Everyone is crippled and corrupted. A trio on the room's long wall seems to be running, fleeing pursuers or an attack. Along another wall, they're hunched and stopped, exhausted or frozen in the pain of transformation. At the front of the procession, a male-female pair is led by a recurring figure sitting on a toy car, dressed in Superman pajamas, with a holstered pistol on his hip. A tear in the paper splits his head in half and removes his eyes.
The torn child is terrifying. It might have been an image of joy in its original form, a kid having fun with a toy. But the missing eyes make the face emotionally unreadable, the open mouth a shout of pain or loss.
Still, the boy is armed. The backs and heads of these figures are armored and weaponized. Survivors, they are hybridizing into the necessity of their condition. Adaptation is mutation, after all.
Looking at these figures, it seems inevitable that Williams will expand into sculpture at some point. Imagine them as three-dimensional figures stalking and fleeing around you in a public space like a park or a city square—or perhaps surrounding Silent Sam at UNC, where Williams got an MFA—and you'll shudder with their power and gravity. If we are all monsters, some of us have to evolve by necessity, and others, by choice.