I first noticed Carl Joe Williams’s work at The Front, one of the artist collective galleries on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans.
He had designed an installation for the gallery’s backyard, and I was drawn to its use of color and pattern as well as its incorporation of audio and video. Williams later described it as a “labyrinth,” in which spray-painted blocks of color on the grass led visitors around the space. I soon encountered his work again at the Joan Mitchell Center as part of P.3+, Prospect.3’s system of affiliated local shows in the fall of 2014 (his resume indicates that he was in three other P.3+ exhibitions at the same time). The show at the center’s Rampart Street location was called “Convergence” and featured local artists who had received residencies at the Joan Mitchell Center for the New Orleans Local Artist (NOLA) Studio program in 2013-14. Given the unique qualities of his style, I recognized the sound of his television sculptures almost immediately. The exhibition also included his figurative paintings on doors and pallets that offer tableau presentations of almost life-size African-American figures.
In 2013, Williams was featured in a solo exhibition at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was also chosen for inclusion in the 2014 Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art exhibition, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now,” for which the curatorial team traveled all over the United States, visiting almost a thousand artists to search for under-recognized voices.
Lately, it seems like Williams is experiencing a moment. His work was recently featured in the New York Times as part of a review of “REVERB: Past, Present, Future” at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. While the CAC’s Katrina anniversary show was on view (it just closed on November 1), more of his work was also across the street at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art for their annual juried show “Louisiana Contemporary.” [It can also be seen through December 4 in the Dashboard-curated show “Relative Humidity” at Marcia Wood Castleberry Hill.]
For our conversation, I met him at his new studio. Williams had recently moved his studio out of his home and into a commercial building in the Central Business District (CBD). It’s the part of town where you’re more likely to encounter bank headquarters and hotels for tourists rather than contemporary art, but this particular building just happens to provide a haven of studio spaces for several artists.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds: So you’ve got some stuff going, I see? This one on the far right [Deeper Questions] was just at the Ogden, right?
Carl Joe Williams: Yes.
RLR: Where is the footage from?
CJW: It’s from Michael Jackson’s “Black and White.” I like working with images that have been seen before. I remember thinking, I want to find that, I want to find that image where all the people are kind of melting into each other. Because at the time, it was one of the first. That technology used in Jackson’s music video was very new when that song came out, so I think when everybody saw that scene, everybody kind of freaked out. That’s what made it memorable. I remember thinking that I wanted to take that image and loop it and have it just continue to go on throughout the piece. It reminded me of the idea that we are all one family, all part of the human family, so to speak.
RLR: And then you composed the music that’s going on top of it?
CJW: Yes. In some cases I would actually look and find a song that worked for the piece. And in some cases, I would actually do the music for the piece. But that [the music for Deeper Questions] was something that I had already been working on with a musician, and it was a much more crafted piece of music, but then I decided that I wanted to overlap all of his parts on trumpet to give it more of a fantasy feel as opposed to it just being a straight-laced song. So I had a lot of his parts layered on top of each other. In that piece, I was really thinking about humanity in general and this idea of a collective consciousness. I’ve always geeked out on ideas like that, and that was one way that I could actually explore these ideas of humanity.
When I started working with the TVs, I started making them more sculptural: I had this old chair that sat in my bathroom for the longest time, and I always saw it as a piece of sculpture. It looks like a hanger, but it almost looked like a piece of African sculpture to me.
The chair didn’t even have legs, it couldn’t stand up, you had to lean it up against the wall. I kept the chair for a while, and I remember thinking that it kind of reminded me of a woman’s reproductive system. So, with this idea of being able to bring all of these layers together, I was thinking about the idea of the great cosmic mother and humanity and all of that stuff. One side of the chair is cool colors and one side is warm colors; there’s always this duality, and all of these ideas are all kind of layered into the work.
RLR: The clip feels very funny, dated, and hyper-enthusiastic. Is that something you were thinking about? Just how absurd it actually looks?
CJW: Yes, I actually enjoy that, because for a lot of people, it really freaked them out. It was like, what the hell is this? A couple of people told me it really gave them the creeps. That’s good. But yes, I enjoy being able to take something that a lot of people are saying and just completely recontextualize it and give it a whole new meaning. And, of course, you’ll think about it differently.
RLR: So, with the Good Times clips, what drew you to those?
CJW: First, I watched Good Times every day as a kid, so I wound up remembering a bunch of episodes. Like, I used the “mad dog” episode, which was shown at the CAC [Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, in “REVERB: Past, Present, Future,” August 1-November 1, 2015]. At the time, I was also watching a lot of Fox News. I would watch Fox News just to see what people were saying, and it was a trip because everything in that particular episode was the same thing Fox News was saying. These are the same narratives that are used today to try to make sense of the problems that are happening with young people and youth violence. I mean, it’s the exact same narrative, but nobody actually goes into the real reasons why, or, I should say, the other reasons why. I found that very, very interesting. So when I looked at the episode, I was just amazed by it, and I felt drawn to do something — to deconstruct it — to just to break it down and take all the jokes out and just focus on anything that might sound like it’s propaganda or some sort of messaging. Take the part where J.J. has a gun in his face, but there’s a laugh track behind it. Like, what’s really funny about that, you know? It’s like a numbness to black people being hurt. I know it’s a comedy, but it just didn’t feel like it was funny. But, the real reason why I was drawn to that episode was because of the kinds of messages that I was hearing in the story.
RLR: And what were the narratives in the Fox News clips?
CJW: It was like the typical thing: the breakup of the home, the fathers not in the homes; it was just that typical narrative of the father running off. Black men always get that charge of “we deserted our family” kind of thing, and I’m reading into this, I’m reading all of these subtexts and I’m thinking, this is the exact same thing, but this was done in ’74.
RLR: But the point was that the narrative was used to explain violence?
CJW: Yes, to explain the violence, and it’s the exact same narrative that we have today. It’s the same thing I was hearing on Fox News. So, I found it very interesting that you can have a television show from that long ago basically saying the exact same things as today. That was what struck me, you know. It was the fact that there was no difference between today and then.
I couldn’t get rid of the laugh track, but lord knows if I could, I would.
RLR: When you were talking about the character with the gun, I was noticing here, in your painting, a character holding a gun.
CJW: Oh, interesting. In a lot of my work, I’m real conscious of creating stereotypes or that kind of thing. Even dealing with the Good Times episode was kind of like walking some tightrope, because you have to use what’s been created to make the work, right?
But I was looking at this guy, Roy Ferdinand’s work. He’s an artist, a local artist here who passed away a little while ago. And I remember somebody saying that I did “urban paintings,” and I was like, “yeah, I think I do.” And then, he, or whoever’s managing his Facebook page, started posting his images, and they were just blowing me away. There was this one image of this guy on the side of a building, holding a gun, seemingly ready to rob a guy sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette. That image hit me so hard, it wouldn’t let me go, and I started thinking about it, because I had always stayed away from these kinds of images before. For whatever reason, I felt like I wanted to actually explore that. I had this piece going on for a while, at least the background, where it says “there’s no way like the American way.” It actually came from a photograph. So when I saw Roy Ferdinand’s image, I decided to go ahead and make it.
Both pieces actually go together. If you can imagine this as a corner, a corner of a building, and then right around the corner is this guy: with this, I wanted to do a piece that dealt with the economy a little bit, and where the money tends to go. I felt like since I already had “there’s no way like the American way” here, I didn’t want to erase it because I felt like it was juxtaposed against this other image so well. So then I thought I would do a tally of all the kinds of businesses that you see in the ghetto, which would be check-cashing places, or pawn shops, or a Church’s Chicken and a Taco Bell, and kind of blend them in with different products, like Newports and Black & Milds. And maybe I was going to have the whole thing like this, but actually have a concrete floor, like it’s on the street, so I could actually insert a real street background into it from where I was positioned in the Bywater. That’s what I would tend to use: I use images; I take photographs, and I bring them back. I’ll give you an example: this guy right here [pointing to a printout on the studio wall], that’s him.
RLR: Is it anyone you know?
CJW: Well, not all the photographs I use do I know the person.
RLR: Is this piece still in progress? It looks like you’re collaging onto it?
CJW: Yes. I started doing collages with these small paintings; it’s a series of really small works. When I started doing these small pieces with the collage, it started to make a lot of sense for me to start to expand out because these larger paintings take so long.
All of my pieces come from so many different sources. I piece it all together like Frankenstein or like a frickin’ quilt. That’s how this piece [Waiting] started to come together.