Contradictions merge dramatically in the big paintings of Peter Williams. Seeing odd tensions in the cultures around him, he distorts them just enough to make his opinions clear.Mickey Mouse, a character Williams sees as part of minstrel and blackface tradition, becomes “Ratman,” an anti-Mickey. Harsh caricatures and stereotypes turn into surrealist actors, interacting in mysterious scenarios.
Williams was born middle-class and black in suburban New York; he started studying in New Mexico, then got his BFA at MCAD. Graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art followed, whereupon he got hired to teach at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the grandson of a famed “Buffalo Soldier,” the African Americans who served in Western cavalry troops. So Williams had known all kinds of cultures—hippies, Midwesterners, suburban businessmen of many races—but until he spent 17 years in Detroit he hadn’t seen so much decay affecting a single racial group.
In Detroit, he found “population decline, under-funded services and a burdensome infrastructure . . . an environment of decay and decline,” he told an interviewer in 2004. So, in energetic, stylized canvases, his subject became “the collapse of stereotypes, representation, and cultural history.”
For this work, he’s been honored regularly, most notably with inclusion in the Whitney Biennial in 2002, and as one of twenty winners of the Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors grants in 2004. Williams now teaches at the University of Delaware.