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Simon Williams Gestural Abstraction with Cartoons and Graffiti

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Artist Simon Williams and 'Chevalier' - Mixed Media on Polyester 160cm x 200cm, 2017

Simon Williams' work feeds upon the plethora of visual material accessible in the digital age.

He draws inspiration from many sources most notably childhood comic books, propaganda posters, graffiti works and advertising. Strong graphic imagery with highly delineated edges and vivid use of colour play a key role in his work. Cartoons, graffiti, advertising and the aesthetic they provide, although not usually regarded as high art, form the visual landscape of his subconscious. He is naturally drawn to visual material such as B movie film posters, propaganda posters and the cherished cartoon annuals of his youth. These art forms could be characterised by well defined edges, but for Williams to emulate that would require a degree of planning and execution at odds with his desire for spontaneity and playfulness.

Williams' paintings combine lots of gestural mark making and in this layering process he is looking for structures embodied with a dynamic energy. Experimentation with materials for their inherent graphic quality, such as acrylic ink and oil alkyd with graffiti markers and even house paint, is at the heart of his practice.

"I find this daily dialogue exploring the possibilities of paint and continual gaining of knowledge and muscle memory, helps to channel my ideas for subsequent work"

The surface quality he works on has become more important as he often uses inks that are super saturated and staining, they respond best to a smooth surface. "I choose fine grained canvas or polyester, I prime and seal paper then sand it back and lately have been drawn to synthetic paper which enables paint to be removed leaving a trace of a mark which has an almost print like quality. I often rotate between large works on canvas and smaller works on paper. The choice can be governed by a number of factors, I find larger works require a lot more thought, I like to live with with a large painting for a while before deciding where to go next. Whereas smaller works on paper allow many pieces to be created, freeing up a more experimental, non-precious approach. This process certainly seems to help inform ideas for larger works in terms of colour and form."

A bout Portant - Alkyd Oil on Canvas 153cm x 123cm, 2016

Williams' background as an Animatronic Designer in the film industry influences his work with painting. He has created Animatronic creatures and effects on many high profile films such as Harry Potter, Prometheus and Star Wars. "Making an Animatronic creature requires a multitude of skills in material manipulation. At times they appear as complicated, spatial puzzles with linkages, wires and cables all jostling for position. I enjoy this spatial complexity and for me there is structure, order and also a degree of chaos. This certainly plays out in my painting. Working in film I've been fortunate to travel the world on commercial shoots, experiencing different cities and the richness of visual material.

"I love to see advertising in a language I cannot decipher, so the focus is composition and colour, and this definitely feeds my subconscious and reveals itself in my work"

In his 2019 exhibition Luna Park, Williams approached abstracted motions and explored the visual treat of funfairs at night. He used photographs of speeding rides caught in a dizzying blur against inky black skies. These inspired several long canvases where he wanted the viewer to visually traverse from one side to another, similar to the experience of being close to a screen in a cinema or by viewing a panoramic photograph. This led to him constructing ever longer pallet knives to push and drag paint across the entire length of a painting. "I'm interested in how a mark is made and how as a viewer we attempt to understand the painting process, disrupting this decoding and breaking up the recognizable visual signature was part of my thinking."

Simon Williams working in Porthmeor Studios (photograph by Alban Roinard)

Williams works from the iconic Porthmeor Studios in Cornwall, best known for the incredible number of internationally significant artists who have been based there including Julius Olsson, Stanhope Forbes, Frances Hodgkins, Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Francis Bacon, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and John Wells. The studios are picture perfect with many facing the view of the beach and the ever-changing light of the Atlantic. “Porthmeor studios is an inspirational place to work and I feel fortunate to be part of its history. So many artists I admire have worked here and striven to push forward our understanding of what painting could be.”

Genie - Ink and Alkyd Oil on Canvas 150cm x 150cm, 2019

The effects of Covid-19 have taken their toll on the art world at large, and have pushed artists to find innovative ways to show their works through digital media. "I think it’s inevitable that we will see more virtual exhibitions online with platforms such as Instagram there is a sense of democratizing of the art market. Allied to that artists are becoming more tech savvy with marketing their own work and seeing it as necessary to unlock opportunities to grow. Although online will never replace being in front of the work. I see the digital domain as full of possibilities."

Williams in his studio

One of Williams' paintings ‘Genie’ is currently long listed for the John Moores painting Prize 2021, perhaps the toughest contemporary painting prize and most prestigious in the UK. Previously in 2016 his painting ‘A bout Portant’ was included in the John Moores Painting Prize. He is also planning a co-curation of an exhibition in 2021 with a number of artists looking at the work of contemporary abstract painters and the use or influence of digital media in their work.

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