Although best known as a painter, throughout his distinguished career Mervyn Williams’ artistic practice has also encompassed design, printmaking and sculpture. For his first solo exhibition since joining Artis Gallery, he is showing a selection of paintings from his most recent series, Round and Round.
Like all his work, these paintings are concerned with perception. The intrigue of the illusion in Williams’ paintings cannot be deciphered in reproduction. One must stand in front of the artwork itself to understand the mastery of paintwork and chiaroscuro that trick the eye into seeing flat surfaces as low relief. When confronted with his painting, the initial assumption is of a textured surface, thick paint built up to form ridges, bubbles, buttons, creases. On closer inspection, the three dimensional qualities are revealed as intricacies of paintwork which belie the flat surface of the canvas. The moment of uncertainty prompts a distinct desire to touch the painting to affirm its true nature.
Luminosity abounds in these works. A subtle variation of tone within the monochrome paintings creates the illusion of an ethereal light stemming from an indeterminate source. Some appear to be glowing from within, while others seem to be lit from behind, like silk held up to the sun. Though purely abstract, the textural qualities of these works evoke allusions to the world around us; patterns on sand left by the receding tide, peeling, blistered paint on a derelict building, undulating folds of fabric or a cracked concrete footpath. In his works, light, illusion and allusion unite, offering a tantalising visual exploration of the painted surface.
Early in his career, a fascination with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism led Williams to explore the mechanics of visual perception, investigating the illusionary techniques of the Pointillist artists and studying the properties of halftones and direct exposure onto photographic film. The 1981 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ celebrated a renewal of interest in painting after the predominance of performance and installation art of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Neo-Expressionism was the dominating movement in this exhibition, but another direction associating painting with photography was exemplified in the works of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. When Williams saw this exhibition and others like it in London and New York, a renewed interest ensued in the ability of the painted surface to convey a sense of reality even more convincing than photography can often achieve, and he revisited experiments with light, colour and texture.
Williams began to investigate through painting the immutable nature of photographs, the ability of the image to remain intact through many degrees of enlargement. Using this property as a starting point the artist employs a complex painting process involving many layers of translucent colour to build up a surface so convincing in its rendering of low relief that a perplexed audience is left uncertain of its surface properties to the point at which only the tactile experience of touch will lay the problem to rest. It is an enigmatic quality that dissipates when the artwork itself is photographed and reproduced.