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Lies About Nothing: Sean Williams’ Paintings
Flat land—a flat horizon line crosses the centre of the predominantly grey painting. To the left, there are gestures that hint at maybe a field, or common land. Bare stark trees, a bird soaring above them. Along the horizon across to the right, the bushes and trees are almost silhouetted against a smear of optimistic blue sky. Moving forwards, towards us, are new foundations and building ephemera of a building site. It looks like a new housing estate being built. Pipes stacked up and bound together. Plastic tarpaulin, a pallet. On the right, a blue pipe snakes towards us, and out of the frame. Right in front of us, in the foreground, the JCBed churned up, grey clods of earth. The sky takes up half of the painting, grey clouds oppressively pushing down, with brief moments of blue and white escaping.
The establishing shot of a film presents a wide-angle of the environment, the context, locating the character or characters that proceed. More than presenting the physical geography of the landscape, it also lays the ground for the narrative, providing the psychological and emotional pitch for what follows. In some senses, the landscape of the establishing shot portrays the interiority of the characters in the film without representing them.
It’s a clear afternoon, and I lock up my bike in the Bloc studios car park, and let the hours drift by looking at Sean’s paintings in his studios. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we drink tea. As I peer at Sean’s paintings, I am grateful for the slow, long inspection that painting affords, rather than the glimpse of the establishing shot. Though, like the establishing shot, Sean’s paintings set up a narrative, without telling it. The emotional resonance is there, the absence of people, the stillness. The way that Sean uses the paint, the long slow build up of colour slow down the looking process. The careful viewer is rewarded with detail.
Resolutely painting in its formal sense—Sean applies the paint with delicacy, laying it on in controlled daubs, smears, and brushstrokes to render the right texture. In Sean’s earlier works he maintained a style of applying the painting only with pointillist dots, this technique has relaxed into wider range of marks and brush strokes. The intense layering of acrylic draws the eye into each area of the painting. And yet, I think of the establishing shot in film—maybe because it’s the contemporary vernacular way in which surveying the landscape tells us something about ourselves.
The history of landscape painting is also touched on in Sean’s work—though, any cloying idealism is resisted. There is a relationship, in some senses between Lies About Nothing, and Constable’s landscapes—the framing of the landscape, the detail of the clouds, the central horizon, the meeting of the manmade and natural. Whereas I see Constable’s paintings reassure us that the rural is naïve, untouched, idyllic, Sean’s paintings show us what has happened to the landscape since Constable. The manmade permeates across the rural, tearing up the sentimentality of earlier landscape tropes. Sean shows us the landscape we are building now, for example in It Haunts It we see the dreams the developers sell us with their artist’s impressions birds eye view on a temporary wall in front of the housing estate being built. Two windows of a house peep out above a depiction of itself, to the right of it, scaffolding holding up the next building mid-fabrication. Like Sean’s painting, the artist’s impression is free of people, perfect because of their absence. There’s a formal term for this: mise en abyme, which describes the miniature insertion of the thing depicted, the key to tell us how to read the painting.
In response to Constable’s hay wain, Sean’s reply is a wrapped, fly-tipped mattress abandoned in front of the semi-circular concrete mouth of a stonewalled bridge in No Sign Of X. The water and rushes indifferently around the flaccid rectangle swaddled in plastic sheeting. These details sit in front of the viewer at the bottom right foreground. Moving up, we see the verge of the bridge borders a road and on it a dull utilitarian grey metal safety barrier. The barrier leads the eye to a gate and a field beyond. Flat with some stark looking trees and some further in the distance. It’s impossible to be sentimental about such a scene. Here, the landscape is a place to dump unwanted furniture, to move through. Its not a place to dwell a while.
A series of clues leads the viewer into Sean’s paintings—inspecting details that present possible traits for the characters, the plot and the plot-twists. In Organiser, a car door is left open. A silver hatchback, parked in an otherwise empty car park. The shin-high wooden parking barriers lace across the foreground of the painting. Three portaloos just beyond the car. Then, a large red circus tent dominates the composition, it’s banner ‘CIRCUS’ supported above it, a grey sky behind it. Is the show in preparation still? Has the organiser just arrived? The mundane exists alongside the height of entertainment. Even when dealing with the syrupy sweet of the circus, the composition resists frivolity.
The thing about Sean’s work I admire (read, am jealous of) is the robustness of his practice. The rigorous process he has, from the train journeys through unknown landscapes to find the exact scenes to photograph, to the astute composing, to the development of the palette of colours, to the patient working on the painting, the crafting of the title to play with the viewer. Each step is thought through, tested out and ultimately, a gift for the viewer. Like in The Last Day, when stillness prevails. The sunlight falling on a rain-soaked garage speaks simply. This is about how light falls—and maybe about how these moments of sunlight are what can keep us going, amidst the complexities of the world around us. The profound coalesces alongside the mundane.
I unlock my bike, and cycle away. The weather is greyer. I’m fortified by an afternoon of looking at art.