Mervyn Williams is as much the magician as the abstruse abstractionist. While some abstract paintings seem aloof, impervious to anything beyond the realm of ‘pure’ aesthetic experience, Williams’ paintings are full of pleasure and surprise. The pleasure derives from perceptual and tactile experience, a pleasure in art and life. It comes in two stages: the up-front, immediate impact of clean-cut shape and flooding colour, and then the slower, lingering, unfolding aftermath, in which the viewer is mesmerised by the enigma, the ambiguity and the resonances and associations of those seemingly simple shapes and colours.
The paintings in this exhibition all date from after 1990. It was then that Williams began the unusual process of welding ‘Old Master’ or Renaissance painting techniques onto modernist abstraction. We know that painters of the High Renaissance developed and refined the art of ‘chiaroscuro’, creating an illusion of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface by means of transitions and contrasts of light and dark. And we know that modernism, by the time it had bloomed into American colour-field abstraction of the 1950s and 1960s, had purged such techniques from its repertoire, the illusion of three-dimensionality being an unnecessary disguise for the reality of the painting as a two-dimensional surface covered with paint. In Williams’ paintings, we sense extrinsic textures and feelings, yet we remain riveted by the intrinsic qualities of painting itself – its flatness and materiality, represented here by elemental forms and a saturated field of radiant colour.
This unique synthesis is the product of a long career in painting and printmaking, years of experience and experimentation. Born in 1940, Williams was painting abstract pictures in the 1950s, when, in New Zealand, this was an activity looked upon by all but a few with considerable befuddlement and suspicion. Early on, he supported himself by working for Crown Lynn alongside Frank Carpay, and then gained the attention of the immigrant artist Ted Dutch, from whom he learned to make silkscreen prints. He also struck up a close friendship with Gordon Walters, and turned out impeccable silkscreen prints for that senior statesman of New Zealand abstraction. But by the 1960s Williams had already consolidated his own style.
Williams’ career divides roughly into three parts. The first part was a response, above all, to Op art. In similar manner to artists such as Bridget Riley, Williams used alternating bands of contrasting colours to set off optical vibrations, and created the illusion of three dimensional volumes on a two-dimensional page, board or canvas. By 1982, Williams had moved into a second phase. Now there was a physical or sculptural presence, not just the illusion of one; the paintings had heavily textured paint surfaces, as a result of spreading significant quantities of paint around with a brush or, often, a slab of wood. Later in this phase, Williams even used found and shaped pieces of driftwood to create relief works. From 1990, however, space and texture retreated back into the flat support, so that it became, once more, illusory. But instead of the snappy contrasts of Op Art, Williams used age-old methods for creating space – nonetheless combined with the clean geometries that had almost always been a feature of his work.
Williams conjures up the sensation of different materials, so that paint-on-canvas becomes denim, cotton, felt or satin, sometimes seemingly punctuated by buttons. There is also the peculiar illusion of paint-on-canvas produced by paint-on-canvas – the impression, say, of drips, sloshes and ridges of thick paint, produced by the entirely contrary technique of patiently crafted tonal transitions. Or the canvas itself looks ruckussed up and creased, as if badly stretched. But as well as these hallucinations, Williams presents the reality of colour. It is by way of the splendour, richness and lustre of colour, as much as anything, that Williams translates the fullness of human experience into the flat medium of painting.
For over fifty years, Mervyn Williams has been committed to the international standards of abstract art. This is not to say that he has distanced himself from a New Zealand audience. His paintings generate illusions that draw on people’s memories and feelings of the world beyond the paintings. It is by this means that he brings abstraction closer to home.
Text by Edward Hanfling