It has been decades since it was clearly possible to distinguish that which yet lauds itself as “art” from an artist’s own subjectivity, impulses and private Weltanschauung – many of them also declining to accept that “art” should be able to explain itself with ideas. But when an artist claims, as the bi-lingual brochure to the newly-opened exhibit “Angels, Amongst Us…” by American artist Frank Williams, “to probe the universal concepts of martyrdom, immortality, religion and spiritual reward”, then there is the shared “universal history” of ideas, images, and even spiritual cosmography by which we may rightfully consider its paintings and sculptures in the Moscow Manege Art Gallery till October 14.
Sigmund Freud reduced religion to human helplessness, neurosis, and repression; Sir J. G. Frazer, of the famous The Golden Bough, deduced it as deriving from personal propitiations to the supernatural beings believed to be above nature by gullible mankind; Frank Williams tend somewhat kindredly to try producing angels out of human bodies – mostly female nudes, and dubious male priests. Amongst the majority of paintings and sculptures, nudes, there is for example barely a one of the many merely numbered Angels not sexually suggestive, and facelessly impersonal – ‘torsos with wings’, and often as not where Orthodox or Catholic icons would attempt to portray the highest human inspiration in the face, one sees a suggestion of the central female sexual organ. The males, numbered paintings of Priests, are all obviously scoundrels, or habitants of three or four of the more tawdry and common circles of Dante’s Inferno – like Gluttony and Lust. Characteristically, one large painting unambiguously presents an unnumbered Pope as a sort of robed, mitered, unrepentant penis appearing to “sing” a religious Christmas carol beneath a halo-like chorus of vaginally-faced female angels. Woman’s nudity and sexual organs, not human eyes or inspired countenances, seem to be the most prominent focus of this show of “Angels” – also for the nudes of refugees women, inspired apparently by Yugoslavia.
Not considering the artist’s skills, or his history of artistic and professional evolution since Arkansas two decades ago, these “angels” and “priests” seem really little more than mere passing portrayals, on an immortal divine theme, neither new nor especially unforgettable. Such overly-earthly, sexual images – with apologies to Dionysius the Areopagite, Dante, and Dore – may be a revelation of the otherwise-sympathetic American artist’s psychology, phase, mood, or social commentary, but they barely seem novel, complex, compelling or consoling – “angelic” – renderings of “universal concepts of martyrdom…” in post-atheist Russia.
These “angels, amongst us…” are not – because they are not angels, but mostly mortal women with wings, and because they are also not really “amongst us”, but rather beneath us by being faceless bodies, as even the most primitive and crude human beings are not.
This exhibit more reveals the artist’s own personal psychology, passions, politics and world-view, than the “universal concepts” it tends rather to reduce to the “animal” than the angelic “amongst us”.
Moscow, October 2000 (unpublished)