New York artist Forrest Williams‘ second solo exhibition Passage (2005) visited the Heather Marx Gallery in San Francisco with life-size oil on canvas and oil on panel figure paintings. Essentially figurative, Williams puts to use a technique of opposites in color and texture to present stark open spaces as backdrops for everyday people.
“There is more of an intensification of reality, a concentrated moment of charged yet restrained feeling,” declares Williams of his exhibit. He is interested in intimacy delineated by contemporary social distance.
In (Red) Alley above, we see two figures in gesture to one another. The figure on the left is poised, as if in contemplation, held in the rigidity of his formal attire and emotional reluctance. The second figure wears a simple black T-shirt and what could easily be denim jeans, has already engaged the other, bent arm and leaning, prepared to shake hands. Yet these figures are kept apart by opposing planes. The background appears to be the same, a smooth red infused with a sense of artificial light, yet the edges do not meet on this panel and instead suggest the figures are not really seeing one another at all. The hands are very close to touching but they are severed by the edge of the canvas; the diptych serves to prevent their hands from reaching the same plane of time and space. Without explanation in their setting, we turn to the emotional value of the figures as heightened by the intensity of the red and the cooling off effect of the white base.
Williams expresses a desire to explore the reality of relationships in space that are reflective of the social and political climates of today. His figures are not merely held in place for effect, they are caught in mid-motion, like photographs, capturing desire and intention rather than complete action. In this sense, the figures contain a preface and a conclusion that exists outside the panel. We understand that we are seeing an instant and it is this fracture of reality that exudes the artist’s temperament and his indictment of the limitations placed on intimacy among men.
Williams purposefully explores texture in the hands and face of this painting, often reducing the amount of linseed oil to pigment ratio to create depth and transparency, the result a kind of ageless quality to the skin tones: on one hand teaming with life, on the other portraits of men dying to realize desires that are not socially or politically customary. These figures could be from times past but Williams wants us to recall our own experiences in modern society, places devoid of details, people caught in their hesitation to reach out to those around them. In this regard the figures of (Red) Alley are isolated from one another and the world around them, or at least a world which is emotionally and consciously congruent.
(Red) Alley fuses mundane spaces with figures pursuing an emotional reality. While Williams extols the complexity of unrealized passions, hands reaching, eyes yearning to cross boundaries decidedly separate and equally dangerous, these are men faced with everyday obstacles, horizontal lines that dissect and vertical lines that imprison the movement of intimacy. Williams’ paintings are not about the fruition of desire; rather the nature of hesitation and the often disconnected impulses men feel in seemingly similar but altogether opposing relationships.
The body of the work in Passage contains varying figures in spatial relationships to solid masses of color in diffused light. What brings (Red) Alley to the foreground of discussion is a sense of compelling opposites. The figures in this work are the most unlike of the exhibit, yet it is this dichotomy of social distinction that gives me the most room for evaluation. The figure on the left is wearing a tie while the figure on the right is wearing a black T-shirt. Instead of closely resembling one another, as evident in the other works in this show, these figures are most fully realized individuals sharing a thin veil of attraction. It is unclear whether Williams is exploring the nature of homo eroticism here but it is obvious that his subject is the relationship of men and the boundaries that prevent them from revealing themselves to one another and their society.
I was drawn to the painterly technique employed by Williams, the use of deepening texture and gradation in the skin tones as well as what I felt was the most successful pairing of furtive expression in the figures. These two men have feelings welling up inside them, intense and inhibited, their faces wear like exclamation points of knowing unexpressed. I found the horizontal and vertical lines of sometimes intersecting, sometimes off-kilter separation a point of entry into the paradoxical worlds of men who cannot express their feeling to one another or themselves. At first glance we see a singular world but through contrasting shades and varying shapes, there are disconnected and limiting planes that can only ever be representational layers of near opposites. I would imagine that if this work could suddenly advance like a film, that is to say the action captured here was allowed to play out, these characters would not embrace.
Forrest Williams has shown a light on the fragmented realities of unspoken emotions and in turn, submerged us even further into those places where men sometimes go, silently, into the disquiet that comforts.
 2005 Bing, Alison, “Forrest Williams: Thisclose” (catalogue essay)