October Gallery, London, will present an exhibition of works by Aubrey Williams, including works previously unseen.
Born in Guyana, in 1926, Aubrey Williams’ life and art cannot be defined by one location. This new exhibition at October Gallery will explore how Williams’ oeuvre not only crosses borders between abstract and figurative modes but also between physical and cultural geographies.
Arriving in London in 1952, Williams enrolled to study at St Martin’s School of Art. He travelled extensively around Britain and Europe to examine firsthand the works of modernist painters that he had admired since he began painting in his youth. In his early days in London, Williams became aware of American Abstract Impressionism following two MOMA exhibitions at the Tate, in 1956 and in 1959. Works by artists such as Pollock, Gorky and Rothko excited Williams. Their explorations of technique, colour and scale were all aspects that he absorbed into his own richly allusive abstractions.
The1950s to the1980s was a period of great activity for the artist. Williams’ work was shown in group and solo exhibitions both in London and abroad. These included Paintings & Gouaches by Aubrey Williams, New Vision Centre Gallery, London, UK, 1959; Aubrey Williams, Eugene Hyde & Barrington Watson, Gallery Barrington, Kingston, Jamaica, 1977; Shostakovich: An Exhibition of Paintings by Aubrey Williams Inspired by the Music and Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London, UK and The Olmec-Maya & Now: New Work by Aubrey Williams, Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery, London, UK.
The early 1980s witnessed Williams’ tour de force: two astonishing series of large-scale paintings. During this period, Williams worked on around thirty paintings expressing his passionate encounter with the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. Large vibrant colours blossom across canvases confronting abstract geometrical shapes on highly-worked background patches, suggesting abstract codes of visual references for the moving dance of music through time.
In the other series, entitled Olmec-Maya (1981-1984), Williams created some thirty works which drew on his deep knowledge of historic Mesoamerican cultures, which he merged with abstraction and figuration.
Williams’ work highlights how the artist believed the avant-garde existed beyond cultural borders. The interplay between abstract painting and rich figurations portrays how, for Williams, art need not belong to one genre. The multiplicity of Williams’ work demands complex interpretations, perhaps why, during his lifetime, he left critics confounded.
Williams was part of the catalytic creativity injected into London by Caribbean intellectuals who were re-shaping the capital. In 1966, out of a necessity to create a forum for artists from the Caribbean, poet and historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite founded the Caribbean Artists Movement. John La Rose, Andrew Salkey, and Aubrey Williams were all founding members. The group formed at a time when Williams later said he was ‘’[feeling] terribly isolated, mentally and intellectually.’’ The founding members of CAM would show and discuss their works in informal meetings at members’ homes. In September that year, Williams participated in CAM’s first conference, held at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Here, he presented his paper The Predicament of the Artist in the Caribbean.
Exhibiting Williams’ work in the 21st century awakens a new assessment of British art history. During his lifetime, the British establishment seemingly never allowed artists, including Williams, to move beyond the label of a Caribbean artist. Today, Williams’ work still resists classification. Williams’ Modernist oeuvre is being reborn into a world now ready for his art. Recent exhibitions including Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London, UK and Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK – the latter of which features the work of Williams – are bringing artists who have remained in institutions’ archives back on to gallery walls to challenge the canon.