October 15, 2020

To look down the sea, 2020.
Acrylic, dye, canvas, and rope on wood panels
170.2 x 279.4 cm.

COOPER COLE artist Rachel Eulena Williams works at the boundaries between painting and sculpture. Her reconfigured canvases unbind painting from the stretcher, avoiding conventional support systems and imagining a myriad of spatial contortions. Her evident interest in colour represents a liberation from, and criticality of, Western art history’s othering of colour, and categorizing it as unruly, foreign, and vulgar. Instead, her interest in imagining unrestrained structures exceeds those boundaries and is partially inspired by science fiction. Williams’ drawings also manipulate the way images are presented, playing with assumptions about virtuosity through abstraction.

We recently spoke to Williams about the new work she made for the exhibition HEY MARS with Scott Treleaven held at Cooper Cole.

CC: Could you tell us a bit about your process of making the works in Hey Mars? What inspired the works?

RW: My process evolved in the months that lead up to Hey Mars. I was primarily working in big batches, creating lots of dyed or painted materials that became distinctive patterns. This process allowed me to handle and connect moments in a single work or series. There were some new attempts at creating gestures and expanding space within the works, and incorporating different weight canvas along with small wooden panels led to works with marks that express movement and gesture.

CC: How do you decide on your materials?

RW: I choose my materials as they relate to the marks, shapes, and line weights I create in my own drawings. I think of it as almost imitating the process of painting with objects; transforming the materials into the drawing base. There has been an evolution in my work to include more everyday objects. I have spent time reflecting on how the objects can add to the conversation of my practice. I am really drawn to materials with their own marks and graphic abilities. The tension that is created between physical textures and flat marks brings another visual dialogue into the paint’s reaction to surface.

CC: Some of your canvas works sprawl across walls, held together with painted rope. Do you imagine them adjusting to where they are installed? Or are you specific about what the final shape is?

RW: I can’t imagine that there will be a uniformity to the installation of my works, and I think that adds to the conversation. When the work is being installed it is usually quite fun and easy, there isn’t much need for a level or string, because there is no right way for the work to exist in relation to the wall. While there is up and down they aren’t relying on a specific angle. The work has many parts that are already connected, making its right or wrongness exist only in relation to itself. That is even more exaggerated in the works that sprawl across walls in this show. There are gestures happening while the materials rely on the moments of strong relation to create their stillness. Because it is all connected, the piece is in relationship to the moments embedded in it; it exists within itself, like if a drawing was turned on its side. To me, there is no wrong way because you can see it in so many different ways especially in relation to different spaces.

CC: You have spoken before about how Western art history has affected the way weunderstand colour, how do you deal with that in your works?

RW: Colour is a story that spans across time and civilizations, and just like any history class there is a narrative lens through which it is viewed, along with which works get highlighted. There is a priority for white and lighters colors, while bright color has been viewed as unrefined. But when you open up the conversation to different civilizations over long periods in history, color, pattern, symbol and language convey specific meanings. They can be learned language or everyday ritual. The work has a purpose for introspection in addition to outward representation.

In some works I address white as the ‘norm’ or backdrop— especially as it relates to the white walls of the gallery— by thinking about how my work will converse with the neutral color palettes it is installed on. I use white to compliment, finish, and connect the work to the uniformity that blankets the pattern. The uniformity of the white beneath my work becomes part of my story; it becomes a colour in my composition that I am challenging. Noticing that and understanding that is how you understand all of art history, and understanding how we view what is ‘normal.’

CC: And you often cite David Batchelor’s text Chromophobia, which speaks about the marginalization of colour.

RW: Black abstraction has always been about colour, and that is where I think Batchelor’s argument is coming from. What if this Western idea of art and expression was flipped? It would show identity as not one thing, as something diverse and complicated. It brings me back to the white walls. We don’t notice them, and that is how we have been conditioned to see it and whiteness in society.

CC: Does your critique of colour in art history extend to shape and form?

RW: At times, the shapes will settle into traditional art historical shapes. Shields, columns, and homes. I am thinking about the future versus the idea of timeless imagery. I am really interested in the places where two very different identities meet.

CC: In some paintings, you have chosen to stay within the frame of the canvas and build up and out of the two-dimensional plane. What led you to that creative decision?

RW: I began using wood panels as a challenge. If I was in conversation with painting it felt neccesary to incorporate the traditional painting structure. At first I wanted to make them unrecognizable, which led me to the works that  sprawl across the wall. Then my work went through a subtle transformation of turning traditional painting structures into pedestals for fragments in my work. I began to see how the small moments that would break the square give the eye an entry point in the textural aspects of what could appear to be a flat surface. The buildup of layers on the panels can be much more physical, and it creates a narrative in the process of removing or shifting the sculptural elements.

CC: How does drawing factor into your practice?

RW: Drawing is really important because I imagine creating larger works as I draw. It is a process that helps me think through the relationship to the wall, for example, so I am drawing as if it is coming to life. Drawing crosses over into my prints too, on the prints I start with the small lines that you see. Then everything else flows from those lines.

CC: Could you tell us a bit about the prints you made for this exhibition? Was this your first time working in printmaking?

RW: It was not my first time working in printmaking, but it was my first time printing in color, specifically oil. I was able to learn oil monoprinting techniques in my SIP Fellowship at The Robert Blackburn printshop, which really introduced me into erasure techniques used. The works are monoprints with small moments of collage. They are made in a backwards order, starting with the fine lines to create a map for collaged elements, which are added with an erasure technique. Thinking through erasure inspired me to include intentional patches of bare paper throughout the compositions. In the erased space, I add a piece of paper with a drawing or painting to create the appearance of other dimensions.

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