Heather Williams Provokes And Soothes With New Work at Akwaaba Gallery

By Tris McCall

If you’re familiar with urban streetscapes, you’ve seen places where posters are pasted atop other posters. Sometimes older posters are partially stripped away from the wall before the newer ones are plastered over them. Sometimes, the job is incomplete, or just slapdash, and lower layers of paper are still readable under the drooping upper layers meant to cover them. After a few months of weathering, it becomes hard to discern where one poster strata begins and another ends. It all crayon-melts together in the sun and rain. The wall records the passage of time and preserves the echoes of the city, murmuring to itself, revising its stories on the fly.

Though wind-hammered city walls often attain a kind of ragged beauty, they’re rarely as pretty, or balanced, as an artwork by Heather Williams. Yet Williams’s work does remind me of certain poster-choked corners of New York and New Jersey — the living city, overwritten and mutable, pleasantly illegible, caught in the vexed process of growth. The pieces on display in “Damage and Repair,” a solo exhibition that’ll hang at the Akwaaba Gallery (509 South Orange Ave. in Newark’s Fairmont neighborhood) until May 7, look, at first, like flat paintings. Get up close, though, and you’ll notice the strips of torn paper, the bits of string and splinters of wood, the adhesive, the fields of bright acrylic and fraying fibers. Symbols and designs and pages from books are often visible beneath the layers, which is not to say they’re ever too readable. They’re more like something caught under the skin: visible, suggestive, a hint of a trauma that hasn’t completely healed.

Untitled work by Heather Williams

And should you approach some of these abstract pieces from the side, and the light is right, you may catch those wrinkled refractions common to city walls covered in shreds of poster and glue. Williams, who lives in Jersey City and has shown all over Hudson County, knows what to balance and what to bury, and has an advertiser’s knack for teasing the eye. Rarely does she give too much away. If she’s moved to incorporate print into her collages, there’s a very good chance she’ll smother the words in paint as thick as barbecue sauce. Some of the broad fields of acrylic are suggestive of faces; others look like grasping limbs. Nothing is easily pinned down. Williams makes all she can of the bright white torn edges of the sheets of paper she paints and gets them to flash across her canvases like lightning over a city sky. The bigger the canvas — “Window,” a great amalgam of cobalt blues and flame oranges, for instance — the better this technique works. “Ancestral Portal,” a recent collage, tucks a great swirl of hot pink paint between torn white borders, and juxtaposes them with fields of dark purple and rust brown. Like all of Williams’s pieces, it’s suffused with a feeling of striving.

“Forming” by Heather Williams

How much of this feeling is intentional, and how much of it is just happenstance? It’s impossible to know, but Heather Williams does not strike me as the sort of artist who would ever waste a happy accident. If an assembly of ripped-up strips of paper makes her feel something, she’s going to do what she can to amplify that emotion. Though she’s given “Damage” and “Repair” equal billing, the damage here is always palpable, and the healing occurs at the funny angles at which badly broken bones sometimes set. It’s tough to miss the pain that these pieces radiate. Distress is visible in the serrated edges of many of the strips of paper she affixes to her canvases, and the turbulence of the brushstrokes, and the chalklike, corroded texture of some of her painted surfaces. Most of the time, Williams handles this troubled stuff with grace. She only stumbles when she’s too on the nose. In “Petals,” a flower is pinched between two big bands of black. It’s either getting crushed or it’s breaking through, but in either case, the dynamics of the struggle are obvious in a way that the artist rarely allows herself to be.   

Untitled work by Heather Williams

Williams has brought her own permanent critical audience to Akwaaba Gallery. The spaces in between the collages are populated by a terra cotta army of her own creation: clay sculptures of regal-looking African women, each one staring out at the canvases as if she’s privy to their deeper meaning. “I’ll Think About It,” one of the most expressive statues is called, and its subject does indeed look like she’s ruminating over something particularly unpleasant and holding her tongue about it. Williams’s busts are heavy-lidded and weary, but the women she captures here aren’t people to be trifled with. They’re a reminder that Heather Williams participated in “Ancestral Call,” Akwaaba’s summer 2021 group exhibition, and one devoted to expressions of African and African-American heritage. She’s a neat fit for a lovely gallery that’s enlivening the west side of Newark with a distinctive combination of traditionalism and adventurousness: one appreciative of the peculiar aesthetic of the city as it is, and sensitive to the explosive energy of the city as it is becoming.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, NJArts, Jersey Beat, the Jersey Journal, the Jersey City Times, the Jersey City Reporter, the Jersey City Independent, and NewJersey.com. He also writes about things that have no relevance to New Jersey. Not today, though. He can be reached at trismccall@gmail.com.