Sam Rountree Williams

7 March - 9 April 2020

I guess I'll start by stating something which is more an observation than a question: thinking back, what originally drew me to your work was that I found it to be different from a lot of painting which is presently doing the rounds. Your work did not immediately make me think of another artist's work. Sure there were some parallels but it was, dare I say it, fairly unique - or perhaps unusual, or unexpected would be more apt descriptors.


What is apparent is your work seems to take artistic cues -stylistic references, spatial constructs and repeated motif - from a genre/style of painting which one associates with outsider/self-taught artists; or more specifically the tradition of naïve (folk) painting. And yet you work at a scale, with a palette and materials which set it apart from the amateur, which brings it into a realm which is (usually) reserved for the academy-trained.


What I find exciting in the work of self-taught artists is to see a pictorial intelligence solving problems, unobstructed by the knowledge and values accumulated in an academy. Such received wisdom can sometimes inhibit creativity, leading to work that is more knowing than it is open. As trained artists I think we can only break free of this if we can find our own space within a medium, a space where we are not just eloquently repeating what others have said. We have to challenge ourselves to go beyond the realms of taste and fashion, to where aesthetic values aren't yet determined. 


Because I aspire to create idiosyncratic work, I take it as a big compliment when you say that my work did not immediately make you think of other artists. I hope that if a relationship to naive/folk painting is visible in my work, it is not so much because I am taking stylistic cues from there as finding a space to be naive myself. 


How relevant is narrative in your work, and who exactly are the actors which appear in your work? Are they the artist or the audience, or both, or neither? Are they specific or generic? And are the scenarios real or imagined spaces? Or are they metaphoric, psychological propositions? 


Metaphoric, psychological propositions is a good description. The scenarios are imagined, but relate to waking reality as a dream does. They can't be narratives, as narratives develop in time, whereas in my paintings there's no before or after what is depicted: they move without going anywhere. 


Despite the absence of narrative, I identify with the figures I paint as a novelist might with the characters they write. Recurring characters include the central, solitary figure in works like Going In, distanced from the world he observes and evoking Caspar David Friedrich's romantic Wanderer above a Sea of Fog; and the oversized kid in works like Narcissus, who, like Ash from Pokemon, wears a cap, and unlike Ash from Pokemon is apparently overawed by his mission to go forth and conquer. 


Why cartoon? Are they more obviously proxies through being caricatures? 


Working in a cartoonish style abstracts the figures, to make them less about me and more about the feelings motivating me. Viewers can thus project themselves into the roles of the figures, identifying more directly with the sentiments and situations in the paintings. 


The style also operates like a mask, in the Oscar Wilde sense: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth" (The Critic as Artist, 1891). Wearing this 'mask', I can show or express things which I wouldn't otherwise, and which I wouldn't otherwise even be aware of, as they emerge from beyond the realm of conscious thought. 


Furthermore, the cartoonish style keeps the mood of the paintings from slipping into the morose or self-pitying as they deal with themes such as anxiety, isolation and lack of agency. For me, it is very important to have this tension between style and substance, where it feels like the two are contradicting each other. The experience of contradiction is central to how I see the world, and I want my paintings to reflect that. 


Your paintings are often divided into halves or quadrants with figures which do not appear to relate to one another. Could you speak to this? 


I think my paintings are concerned to a large extent with the loneliness of subjective experience. That is what separates the figures: they are isolated in their own perspectives. But my figures also long to transcend this, to be reconciled with others and embrace the infinite. This is why there are so many symbols of sexual unification in my paintings, for example the trees and buildings which are simultaneously phallic and yonic, or the pointy buildings poised beneath holes in the sky. They have no erotic charge, but represent rather a way to escape the self, to dissolve one's boundaries. 


Also your work seems to be about flatness-why is this?


The flatness in my paintings is in a way reminiscent of a stage set. The buildings, hills and orbs are like floating facades, or things painted on a backdrop. Many of the figures, too, have mask-like faces. This might sound like a world of surfaces, but but behind the forms and figures is another world, a world of shadowy forces which writhe beneath the visible. My paintings chart the tension between the codified world of appearances and the invisible drives influencing them from below.


- Sam Rountree Williams interviewed by Dan du Bern, February 2020




Sam Rountree Williams (1986, Hamilton, New Zealand) lives and works in Berlin. He gained his BFA from Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland, in 2007; and from 2009-10 he was a guest student at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Recent exhibitions include Sam Rountree Williams and Sabine Voltz, Sonneundsolche, Düsseldorf; Cell, Robert Heald Gallery (2019); and Sam Rountree Williams and L&Z Elements, May & Kuhn, Berlin (2018).