Magazine article The Spectator

Distant Approach

Magazine article The Spectator

Distant Approach

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2 Distant approach Evelyn Williams: Recent Paintings Agnew's, 43 Old Bond Street, London, W1, until 17 October

For a culture so cushioned from the reality of death, we make an awful lot of art about it. Mortality as a theme is as 'in' today as it was in 17th-century Holland; then, vanitas painters knocked out skulls and dead birds for wealthy merchants, now Quinn and Hirst turn out blood heads and flayed cows for millionaire admen. It seems that in periods of prosperity it amuses the rich to collect such obvious reminders of mortality. Qua lifestyle accessory, they project the flattering image 'I may be rolling in it, but I'm philosophical'. Qua memento mori, they are mere Post-it notes compared to the paintings of Evelyn Williams.

Now in her early seventies and enjoying her first West End show at Agnew's, Williams might be surprised at the suggestion that her work is about death. Ostensibly it's about life, in all its stages. In a 40-year career that began with a bang with her winning the John Moores Prize for sculpture in 1961, Williams's muted but surprisingly large reliefs and paintings have followed her personal, often painful progress through life as a child, lover, mother and grandmother. If not strictly about death, her work is concerned with the small separations that serve as constant reminders of the big one, forming a record of one woman's lifelong struggle to close the gap between herself and others. It is quiet and unquiet work, hard to place - too intimate for the public space, too demanding for the private - but made easy on the eye by the softness of its gestures and the cool clarity of its palette, like a pebbled beach.

Williams was brought up by the sea and it remains a presence in her work. In an age of noise her paintings are unnaturally quiet, but if they did emit a sound it would be the muffled roar of a seashell held to the ear, presenting the illusion of a world outside when really we are listening to ourselves. The figures in her pictures give nothing away: their shining, inward-looking gazes have an impenetrable reserve that throws us back on to our own resources. Confront the crowd of grey commuters in Williams's 'Face in the Crowd', and their faces meet your gaze and politely hand it back. Their glassy eyes arc not windows to the soul, but windows through which you glimpse the soul looking out: quietly, gravely, patiently, without expectation, seemingly waiting for some contact to be made, some spark to be lit. 'I think they are asking you a question,' says Williams, 'it's up to you as a spectator whether you want to be engaged or not. …

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