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Peter Williams in the studio.

For more than 45 years Williams has chronicled current and historical events, interspersing pictorial narratives with personal anecdotes and fictional characters in order to create vibrant paintings about the diverse experiences of Black Americans. With boldness and humor, he tackles the darkest of subjects including, but not limited to, police brutality, lynching, slavery, mass incarceration, and other realms of racial oppression.  Williams uses cultural criticism to form new creation myths, retelling the history of America from fresh and cosmic perspectives.

Williams’ more recent paintings address a range of subjects including oppressive social structures, white supremacy, police brutality, abuse of power, and political activism. In his on-going series, Black Exodus, Williams tells an Afrofuturist tale of a brown-skinned race that escapes to outer space in search of new planet homes and an end to the cycles of oppression from which they have been subjected. The tale that Williams has envisioned is a journey of consciousness and conscience, a metaphor for the inner and outer travels that all of us must undertake to confront the truth about race and ourselves. 

Peter Williams (1952 - 2021) was born in Suffern, NY and raised in Nyack, NY.  He earned his MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and his BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2021 he was the recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship Award, 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize, and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020, he received the Artists’ Legacy Foundation Artist Award.  In 2018 he was inducted into the National Academy of Design. Other awards include the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (2018), Joan Mitchell Awards (2004, 2007), Ford Foundation Fellowships (1985, 1987), and McKnight Foundation Fellowship (1983). He was to retire in September, 2021 from his position as Senior Professor, Fine Arts Department, University of Delaware and taught at Wayne State University for 17 years prior.   

Williams’ many exhibitions include Black Universe (2020) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI; Trinosophes, Detroit, MI; and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Men of Steel, Women of Wonder (2019), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK; River of Styx (2018), Luis De Jesus Los Angeles; With So Little To Be Sure Of (2018), CUE Art Foundation, New York; Prospect.4: The Lotus In Spite Of The Swamp (2017-18), Prospect Triennial, New Orleans, LA; Dark Humor: Peter Williams (2017), Allcott Gallery, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; The N-Word: Common and Proper Nouns (2017), Ruffin Gallery, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; Me, My, Mine: Commanding Subjectivity in Painting (2016), DC Moore Gallery, New York, NY.

Peter Williams’ paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Nasher Museum of Art, Delaware Art Museum, Davis Museum of Art/Wellesley College, Ft. Wayne Museum of Art, Howard University in Washington DC; Wayne State University, Detroit; as well as numerous private collections including Jorge M. Perez/El Espacio 23, Miami, FL; Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH; McEvoy Family Collection, San Francisco, CA; Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, MI; Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection/The Bunker, Palm Beach, FL; Bill and Christy Gautreaux, Kansas City, MO; CCH Pounder, New Orleans, LA; Rev. Al Shands, Louisville, KY; Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth, Palm Beach, FL; Burger Collection Hong Kong; among others.  

Created with oil-based enamel paint markers, oil paint, and graphite on canvas, Williams’ versatility as a painter is accentuated by his painted dot technique. He references a matrix of cultures and periods from impressionism and folk art to Australian Aboriginal dot painting and Afrofuturism. The readability of each painting is mitigated as the field of vibrant, colorful marks and cartoonish forms are transformed from a dazzling spectral vision to one of complex underlying messages. Williams’ paintings challenge the viewer to make sense of what they see, to become active observers who confront their own understandings of personal identity as it relates to community and, ultimately, the greater humanity.

With a vast knowledge of history, a wicked sense of humor, and a renewed sense of urgency, Williams weaves together historical events, allegorical myths and creation stories with current events and Williams’ personal life experiences to address a range of subjects including oppressive social structures, white supremacy, police brutality, abuse of power, incarceration and incarnation, and political activism.  Using the repeating pattern of the grid/cube, storyboard and (prison) bars as the archetypes and organizing structures for many of these works, the paintings feature a cadre of vignettes that comment upon racism, injustices and human folly throughout history. They are dramatized through a range of subjects including a slave who shipped himself to freedom in a crate, prisoners who shape- shift into actors and circus performers, a Middle-Passage “cruise” ship, a symbolic pyramid of power built by peoples of color, a Purple Horse symbolizing the incarnation of transformation, and an under-performing Black superhero named “The N-Word”—a recurring character in Williams’ oeuvre.

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