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At first blush, Bhabha Williams at David Kordansky Gallery was a mystifying meeting ground of dichotomies: sculpture and painting, abstraction and figuration, organic and synthetic, fluorescent and grisaille. The two-person show saw Huma Bhabha’s cork and foam figures poised like totems against Michael Williams’ abstract “puzzle” paintings. The exhibition was supplemented with works on paper by both artists, allowing for a deeper look into their respective styles and methods. The disruptions and fissures between both artists’ output felt like the exhibition’s jumping-off point. Rather than a desire to unify its contents, the exhibition expressed complexity and difference with tenderness and acceptance. This receptiveness extended to the individual works, which embrace variety and variation, creating unity without concealing internal tensions.
The show, bluntly titled after each artist’s last name, spanned the gallery’s three adjoining rooms. In the first, the bold presence of Bhabha’s sculptures nudged and tugged on the procedural secrets of Williams’ abstract paintings. The primary materials used to construct the figures—cork and styrofoam—were given a false sense of weight by the sgraffito carvings on their dark, oily surfaces. Balken (2022), a humanoid figure of roughly human scale, has the unflinching presence of unhewn wood or stone, but the blue foam left visible at the figure’s head conveys a secret vulnerability behind the appearance of strength. By contrast, Williams’ paintings—thanks to scattered paint drips carefully contained by white outlines—often have the aloof, atmospheric quality of glimpsing through a gentle rain. His process, which involves painting atop inkjet photographic prints, distills legibility and spatial relativity into an elusive essence guided by an unknown internal logic. In Crying Watercolorist (2022), the result is a dense maybe-landscape, maybe-interior, comprising heaps of muted puzzle pieces punctuated by shards of electric green and orange.
The second, larger gallery was more fully committed to figuration than the first, charging the room with confrontational energy: 2-D portraits by Bhabha and of artists at work by Williams were surrounded by more of Bhabha’s figural sculptures. Her Untitled works on paper (all 2022) were drawn with sweeping gestures and scrawled linework in psychedelic hues. With doubled eyes and eyes-within-eyes, the hallucinating subjects project their externalized delirium outward. Williams’ figures, by contrast, are preoccupied, poring over artworks of their own. In Studio/Office (2022), he swaps abstraction for a surreal scene. An artist made of scribbled lines with a long phallus scrawled onto its arm paints diligently, his single large eye bulging with focus. Surrounding the artist, a Buddah-like figure is rendered in washy colors while a bearded man with long eyelashes is stylized differently, outlined in what looks like black pen. While Bhabha’s figures maintain an outward, confrontational presence and Williams’ working artists possess a neurotic inward focus, they are each cobbled together from an array of elements that work together to convey an idiosyncratic logic.
For both artists, this patching together of elements is heightened by the fact that neither is concerned with concealing the seams. Depending on the viewing angle, Bhabha’s shapeshifting Pilot (2022) appears to be either a sphinx or a reclining figure. An ill-defined face is carved into either side of its head: One has the gaze of an unflinching voyeur, the other that of an indifferent deity. This duality found a striking resonance when the sculpture’s forward gaze was followed to Williams’ Paired Puzzles with Interpolation (Studio/Courthouse) (2020–22), a puzzle painting made of two conjoined canvases interrupted in the middle by a narrow third slid between them. The sliver of canvas is painted in approximately (but not quite) the same fuchsia, olive, orange, and blue color palette as the other two, working to both connect and disrupt the generously fragmented content of the two larger halves. Though Bhabha’s Pilot and Williams’ Paired Puzzles could not be more stylistically or materially distinct from one other, they share a tender approach to their respective medium wherein the gestalt of the final product does not obliterate the individual components.
Throughout Bhabha Wlliams, the wide assortment of conceptual and material approaches across the work of both artists never attempted to reconcile into a singular vision. Rather, each body of work reflected the matter-of-fact, existential inevitabilities that so often confound and bewilder a lived reality that insists on complexity. Sharing space, Williams and Bhabha allowed multiple realities to coexist without being reductive, suggesting a self-aware acceptance of difference that inspires a more utopic way of being.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 32.