Mervyn Williams’ paintings are concerned with perception. The intrigue of the illusion in the works cannot be deciphered in reproduction. One must stand in front of the artworks themselves 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 – on closer inspection, the three dimensional qualities are revealed as intricacies of paintwork which belie the flat surface of the canvas.
Luminosity abounds in Williams’ 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.
Although best known as a painter, throughout his distinguished career Mervyn Williams’ artistic practice has also encompassed design, printmaking and sculpture. Born in Whakatane, in 1940, Williams now lives and works in Auckland. After studying at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland from 1957 – 1958, Williams briefly went into screen printing and design. He has exhibited regularly in New Zealand since 1966 and is represented in major public and private collections in New Zealand, the USA, Canada, Europe, the UK, Japan and Australia.
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 1960s and 1970s. 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.
In 2014 a survey exhibition was held at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland. The exhibition titled ‘50 years of Mervyn Williams’, was curated by Dr Edward Hanfling and included work of remarkable variety and originality, covering a period of more than fifty years. It was at this survey show that Ron Sang Publications launched the book ‘Mervyn Williams : From Modernism to the Digital Age’ by Dr Edward Hanfling.