Brittney Leeanne Williams
This Bitter Earth
28 November 2020 - 6 February 2021
MAMOTH is very pleased to announce an exhibition of new paintings by Brittney Leeanne Williams, on view from 28 November 2020 to 6 February 2021.
This Bitter Earth presents a selection of Williams’s iconic paintings depicting red, majestic women engaged in tumultuous embraces. This motif was developed during Williams’s residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and has evolved following the artist’s latest research on motherhood and legacy. Echoing Dinah Washington’s rendition of the classic R&B song, the narrative of the show leads the viewer to consider the kaleidoscopic relationship between mother and daughter on “this bitter earth.”
Williams addresses the theme from the perspective of a grieving woman. The grief becomes a turning point where roles and responsibilities between the parent and her child begin to mutate. This consequential exchange, charged with emotion, appears on the canvasses in the form of female bodies who seem to be at once dancing and in combat with each other.
This body of work relies on a range of visual references from Cornelius Van Haarlem’s masterpiece Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon, to Internet-sourced pictures of people hugging at airports. The resulting artworks, presented for the first time in the UK, revive an overlooked trope in the Western canon: that of the embrace. From religious depictions including the Mystical Nativity by Botticelli, to Klimt’s golden couple, and Chagall’s ethereal lovers, hugs have been depicted to showcase fidelity, sacrifice, romantic love, and sexual tension. Women were often displayed as passive recipients of male passions. In This Bitter Earth, Williams upends such traditions. Instead, she shows prominent women enduring their grief and exploring their identities without the rhetoric of gentleness and angelic beauty.
A flamboyant mixture of cadmium reds sets the tone for sharing this part of the black female experience. Red is the colour of urgency and attention, and has become Williams’s signature element. The format of the paintings and the contrast between the reds and a few select complementary colours is conceived to engulfs the spectator. Overwhelming yet irresistible, the canvasses float between the realms of abstraction and hyperrealism. In almost every painting, the viewer is confronted with a central section, inhabited by plain muscles and flesh, against a peripheral backdrop of luxuriously depicted lemon trees, and gardens, and the night sky of Victorville, California. With the red silhouettes in the foreground, it is hard for the viewer to grasp the limit between one figure and the other. This evokes the flux of the emotional connections charging the portrayed subjects. Violence and tenderness go hand in hand conceptually as well as visually, through layers of pastel, acrylic, and oil.
What is it to inherit from a grieving woman? What is it to “mother” someone while also caring for one’s self? What degree of resilience is needed for black women to live in the United States? Throughout the course of the exhibition, This Bitter Earth encourages visitors to ponder such questions while reflecting on their own journeys as parents, children, or kin of any other nature.
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), Venice, Italy (Venice Biennale), London, Copenhagen, and Hong Kong, as well as in Chicago and throughout the Midwestern United States. Williams attended the 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 the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, amongst others.