Paint-by-numbers isn't usually the technique to which an artist aspires. The pre-mixed colors and numbered outlines of a paint-by-numbers kit have made it a metaphor for mindless conformity. It is, in fact, generally seen as the opposite of creative artistry.
Not for Griff Williams.
A decade ago, when the Montana native took note of his young son's paint-by-numbers kit, a light went on. He took the idea of the design and created his own system.
"I'd gotten really bored with the way I was making paintings," he says. "I found that systematizing gave me this whole new lease on life with painting. It freed me up to sort of not have to make subjective decisions."
Williams outlines his paintings in advance, breaking them up into sections across the canvas. He defines each element with a specific color, and then premixes those colors before pouring them into their delegated spots.
Of course, it's still a subjective process, no matter what Williams says. The color mixtures are of Williams' own choosing, not of some company design. And Williams designs the way in which a painting will be broken into pieces and how it will be colored. In the end, it's certainly a strategic, tidy way to create a painting, but definitely not mindless.
The result is something both orderly and offbeat. His most recent series, which shows at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) through the end of April, is called It Is Not Down In Any Map; True Places Never Are. The seven enamel and resin paintings utilize glossy combinations of the same bright variety of colors. Black ink drawings of cyclones made up of tiny silhouettes of people, monkeys, hawks and other creatures appear to swirl from the bright flowers and mountains of what might otherwise be considered a straightforward landscape. It's Williams personal take on the art of landscape.
"I don't find myself having a great kinship with landscape painting or landscape photography," Williams says. "They're often less about the landscape and more about people's desires, like the things that you wish to be true about the land, that we kind of romanticize and mythologize—the wild spaces. That's been true for centuries. And, for me, it's always rung kind of hollow."
Williams says his colorful landscapes don't depict any particular place. Instead, the flower images are distorted versions of old Dutch still life paintings, while his mountains are presented with the symmetry of a Rorschach test. Those are the imagined, heightened versions of romanticized landscapes that people desire, while the cyclone represents a darker, more empirical reality. It's an exploration of the idea that we all simultaneously occupy life in our heads and in the real world. And those, he says, are two very different experiences.
"It's like eyewitness testimony in court," says Williams. "It never really holds up. Our experiences are so malleable, so mired in our desires and our own way of remembering things. I think we all kind of experience the world differently and I think the paintings present these two polarities in the way we experience things."
It's hardly surprising that Williams' themes center on the idea of landscapes and ideas of wilderness, when you consider his family background. Williams is the son of former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams, who represented Montana from 1979 to 1997 on platforms protecting wilderness and state land, and current state Sen. Carol Williams. Griff was born in Butte, went to junior high in Helena and moved to D.C. with the family when his father was elected. He moved back to Missoula to get his bachelor's degree in fine arts. When he moved back to D.C. yet again, the struggle for National Endowment for the Arts funding was in full swing, and he ended up joining his father to advocate on behalf of fighting for the arts.
In 1993, after moving to San Francisco, Williams founded his own gallery, Gallery 16, along with a printmaking studio called Urban Digital Color. With federal arts funding in crisis the gallery and printmaking studio served to balance each other.
"I saw it as a new model to support visual arts programming in that we could use the revenues created from one to support the other," he says.
Williams says his paintings take on a different feel when they move from his San Francisco gallery to Montana. Here, where traditional landscape artists like Thomas Cole and C.M. Russell have often dictated people's view of the land, Williams' paintings seem loaded with editorial statements about perception. It's a realist message, couched in abstract art that both celebrates landscape and attempts to reveal its hidden qualities. And it's not far flung from the context of a family of political activists.
"The landscape is a seduction but it ultimately leads to these dark realities," says Williams. "It's true of the way that the land has been treated, it's true of the way that we consume and consume. That cyclone, those tornadoes, that swirling imagery in black that go through these paintings are really referring to the link that connects us through history."
Griff Williams gives a gallery talk at a reception for It Is Not Down In Any Map; True Places Never Are at MAM's Artini on Thursday, March 18, at 6 PM. Free.