Amber Lee Williams’ exhibition (un)hidden incorporates several distinct bodies of work that intersect with each other, growing out of and into each other. That isn’t so much a pun as an acknowledgement of the personal and very physical narratives that define Williams’ practice, diverse in media (polaroid emulsion lifts on cotton rag paper to readymade yet enhanced mason jars) if interconnected in concept and content.
This convergence occurs literally in the VISA gallery. The music boxes along the one wall (gutted and mounted in tiny jutting “drawers”), audio both comforting and creepy, wafts out to join you as you move among the mason jars mounted on plinths (Preserves (Jar Installation)). These are unembellished metaphors of vessels, but also offer images at the bottom of these glasses that correspond to the images on two other gallery walls (Preserves (Jar Image Installation) or Change or Over the Shoulder).
Several of these prints (Upper Body Lower Body for example) blend abstraction and recognizable depictions that play off each other, in colour and form, and one final wall (if you walk clockwise around the space, beginning with the enticing music boxes) offers a large “contact” sheet. This acts as a visual “statement”, in tandem with Williams’ written one, but also as an indicator as to many of her ideas visually realized around you originated. To stand in front of these black and white images where Williams, with her daughter and partner, recreates “hidden mother” images that once proliferated in archival, or Victorian, photography, and then turn and move among the tiny shelves protruding from the wall, with music box “guts” you’re invited to wind (multiple chimings that overlap and layer, in and out of sync with each other), to stylized renderings of “motherhood” that are as illustrative as they are conceptual, is to see that Williams has offered a very autobiographical exhibition.Besides being a strong show aesthetically, there is a sense of her self, here, that is very much like a journal of memory and being.
Despite its title, (un)hidden is a very physical, corporeal show. The artworks grounded in a physical being. This – like the different artworks that overlap and enhance each other, employs the artist’s strong sense of identity (as seen in her past works, and that Williams is one of the hardest working, and most prolific artists in STC. Thus who she is, to me – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is very much defined by the images she creates) as a base to explore different concepts of “mother”, seen or unseen, overt or simply implied.
If I consider a main “framework” (my recent engaging conversations with curator Emma German have me considering how we interact with art, how we expect to do so, or don’t expect to do so) its that Williams’ (un)hidden has a great deal of resonance, with connections only clearly seen / understood upon completion of the work, with instinct and intuition in process that informs the realization but is not overt or limiting in its construction. As someone who can, of course, not ever be a mother, nor has children or any desire in that area, I never felt that this exhibition didn’t offer me experiences that are engaging visually and conceptually.
One of my favourite authors, Salman Rushdie, in The Moor’s Last Sigh, gives voice to an artist who is also a mother (or vice versa) and one critic of that book described her (Aurora Zogoiby) as “too much of an artist to be a good mother.” With Williams, the opposite is true, though even that’s too simplistic a statement. The pieces in un(hidden) suggest a gradation of meaning where something is not so much visible as intimated, no so much missing as alluded to, and thus present and absent simultaneously. This is where the visual surpasses language. This multiplicity of Art is like a mason jar that suggest domesticity and careful nurturing and that, upon closer examination, offers an image “sunk” within it that elevates it to portraiture, both on a personal level of the artist’s experience, but also as a trope of mother / mothering / the complicated dynamic between being an artist and a mother.
Her statement is well written and expansive: I’ll offer a few excerpts.
“This body of work is in some ways a documentation of my experience as a mother, and an exploration of the individual and shared themes of motherhood in general. While the work was created from a personal point of view, I connect it to the timelessness of motherhood and the universal truth: we are all born.”
(un)hidden “is the culmination of a year-long independent study course (VISA 3F99) with Professor Amy Friend. I was pregnant when the project began, and gave birth to my second daughter at the end of January this year. My studio processes involved experimental photographic techniques with Polaroid emulsion lifts and lumen printing; while incorporating sculpture and installation as an integral part of the work. My intention for this work was to explore the idea of a “contemporary hidden mother”, with other themes of motherhood, relationships between family members, and the loss that we all face in the inevitable passing of time.”
This is an exhibition of imagery and elusiveness (in conversation, the idea of creating an image or object and trusting in the intuitive nature of the process while understanding that interlinking concepts will reveal themselves later was a recurring point). Like the mothers that are concealed, or only revealed by implication or a sudden glimpsed detail (whether the historical photographs that Williams displays, from her own collection or in the restaging of these in Hidden Mother Contact Sheet) this show offers obvious signifiers and understated ones.
Williams is also one of the artists who’ll be exhibiting in the 2018 In The Soil Arts Festival, with a new work that continues some of the ideas found (or to be found) in (un)hidden. Her Self Portrait as a Female Fountain will be installed at the corner of St. Paul and Bond Streets in the downtown, but as with all In The Soil events and exhibitors, check back at their site for the latest updates and any variations. Williams performed continuously through ITS last year, although she may have walked right by you without recognition, and she commented that ITS is a space where she likes to challenge herself and step outside her usual comfort zone of artmaking. Personally, I look forward to seeing how Bruce Nauman might be reconfigured through a female, maternal or perhaps simply contemporary lens. It might be a commentary on gender (performative or otherwise) but it also has some connection back to Williams’ Breastmilk on Baby’s Breath 1 and 2, from (un)hidden.
All images generously provided by, and copyright, of the artist.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.