The term outsider art brings with it a heavy cross to bear. It’s difficult not to impose one’s own personal expectations onto both the art we see under that guise, but also onto the creator. It’s not that the same can’t be said about other art movements, but in this case, those expectations relate more to conditions of art making that are not apparent in other styles. Indeed, in thinking about Terry Williams’ practice, I must admit, I imposed a romanticized set of characteristics upon the artist’s work and life.
Many volumes are dedicated to chronicling artist’s lives, but they are often not published until after the artist’s death and, with the aid of hindsight, authors reevaluate oeuvres, allowing other factors to explain and underscore artistic decisions or motives. Of course there are exceptions but, for the most part, contemporary art writing focuses on the works themselves, with writers trying to affiliate threads that may connect a body of work to the broader social or cultural context, in order to better understand the content and machinations of the what they’re seeing.
The reality with outsider art is that the biographies of artists are central to the frame of outsider practices, to the point that there is commonly historicisation and misguided preconceptions. Personally, I had imagined Williams as an outcast. This notion of the outsider artist as a misfit cannot be overlooked when unpacking the discourse of outsider art; particularly in this day and age, with the omnipresence of images and dissertations on art. So is Williams a hermit? What I ultimately came to ask was, “Who cares?”. What is obvious is that he is an artist with a great sensibility for representation and with a talent for imbuing objects with a certain mystery and ambiguity.
What is more interesting is a consideration of the materials and processes on display – Williams’ artistic decisions and execution are a result of the materials at hand. While on first inspection, the stitching may seem crude and heavy handed; it is very much a factor in the aesthetic of the work. The sculptures lend themselves to a soft, crumbled, collapsing character, “as though sculpture were a type of costume or caricature of lived and useful things”. The fabric is cut into panels that are arranged and sewn together and then filled – forming soft sculptures. One such example is alien head: an Octopus-like creature whose skin is fashioned from cotton panels depicting scenes from The Flash comic series. There is here a disregard for scale and functionality, a recognisable trait from the Surrealists. Stripped of any illusion or rhetoric however, these works celebrate the ideas and images in Williams’ mind’s eye.
The exhibition’s curator, Ricky Swallow describes how Williams’ practice has developed – particularly as a result of experiments with different materials.
There has certainly been a progression in the construction and appearance of his objects. Though not necessarily a refinement, the works are now more complex and multifaceted, enriched with a wider vocabulary of forms and details.
A question that is commonly asked of outsider artists is for whom they make the work. Jean Dubuffet, one of the early proponents of outsider art, or Art Brut, wrote of a group of men and women who had a primordial need to create work. Further, he argued that the act of producing art could be used as a healing tool for those mentally disturbed subjects with whom he developed a rabid fascination. There is certainly an urgency and matter of fact construction to Williams’ works that does speak to the qualities so admired by Dubuffet. In Soft Sculptures, Williams introduces a new dimension to the work, with some works providing an interactive experience for viewers. This show includes a helmut head that can be worn by gallery viewers that allows the viewer to access a different dimension of the process and Williams’ vision.
The work does strike some similarities with Oldenburg, Kelley and Trockel, but these comparisons don’t seem relevant when discussing Williams’ work. There is a different engagement, a different relationship with the world. Swallow wants to display the immediacy of Williams’ work and White Columns seems like the perfect location. On the periphery of New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood, the space, currently run under the watchful eye of Matthew Higgs, presents many of the city’s most intriguing exhibitions. As the oldest consecutive running alternative art space in the city, it has a license to experiment with new or overlooked movements in contemporary art. What a show like this does is to move us a little closer to a point where the continually expanding definition of outsider art renders the term redundant.
Terry Williams – Soft Sculpture, curated by Ricky Swallow is on in the White Room at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street, New York City until 18 April, 2015.
 Swallow, Ricky; exhibition essay for Terry Williams – Soft Sculpture, White Columns, March 6 – April 18, 2015
Joel Draper was born in Sydney and currently works at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. Prior to this he was Gallery Manager at Anna...