Peter Williams's paintings have a quality that I'd describe (without value judgment as) as "too-muchness." His works are loud, with arrays of colors in grids, stripes or dots; they feature cartoonish figures in dreamlike states, amid such symbolic imagery as basketballs, African masks, Mickey Mouse ears and flowers. Each painting is a puzzle so jam-packed with feelings and ideas, I can't help but be dazzled by it.
Williams, who died last year, spent his career rendering the many personal and public dimensions to being black in the United States. He did so with seriousness and humor, using a range of painting techniques and a heavy dose of the grotesque. Much of his work that I’d seen before this current exhibition, “Nyack,” was visually bright and emotionally dark, depicting violence. By contrast, the paintings here retain their moral force but approach their subject matter more obliquely.
Take, for example, the show’s pièce de résistance and namesake, an 11-foot-long diptych from 2013. The title refers to Williams’s childhood hometown, and the composition alludes to John Singleton Copley’s 1778 painting “Watson and the Shark.” Yet the cubistic scene remains cryptic. A boat full of people seems to shepherd a hidden Black figure to safety, while another, dismembered, floats in the water.
Is Nyack a place of refuge or danger? Seemingly both. Like the best puzzles, Williams’s paintings compel you to decipher them, but their greatness is in refusing to provide the comfort of an easy or definitive solution.