The Power of the Artist - an interview with Alun Williams and Anne Barrault

By Maria Martens Serrano - Monday, November 30, 2015
The Power of the Artist - an interview with Alun Williams and Anne Barrault

Upon investigation, the work of Alun Williams can be said to question the phrase: “a rose by any other name…” Rather, it comes closer to Gertrude Stein’s famous sentence: “a rose is a rose is a rose”, by which she meant that using the name of something is enough to call to mind everything that an object or character represents.

The Power of the Artist - an interview with Alun Williams and Anne Barrault

At this year’s Artissima we had the pleasure of meeting Alun Williams, whose work is represented by Galerie Anne Barrault. Walking through the fair’s Main Section, the painting that caught our attention was “Three Holy Virgins attended by angels” - a medley of references in an otherwise placid landscape. Christian cherubs accompanied by angels quoted from Basquiat and Picabia overlook the three virgins - one belonging to Karel Appel, another taken from Iranian (muslim) depictions of Mary, and in the middle - Alun’s own.

Upon investigation, the work of Alun Williams can be said to question the phrase: “a rose by any other name…” Rather, it comes closer to Gertrude Stein’s famous sentence: “a rose is a rose is a rose”, by which she meant that using the name of something is enough to call to mind everything that an object or character represents.

Alun Williams works with characters from history or religion and transforms our perceptions of these, or rather - he challenges our perceptions, the way in which we have been imagining them all along. His portraits have been lauded for reinventing history painting - yet, the artist would argue that he wishes to bypass temporality all together.

Intrigued by these subjects, we interviewed both Alun Williams and Anne Barrault, who have been working together for a number of years. As Anne provides insight into her decision making processes as a gallerist, Alun shares details on his own technique as an artist, and the ways in which he creates new faces, so to speak, for his characters.

Maria Martens: Anne, how did you start  your own gallery?

Anne Barrault: The story is really simple. When I was young I really wanted to work with artists, but I didn't know how to work with them initially. Then I went to Paris to do my university studies - in economics, which was really boring for me - and I started to organise exhibitions, and then I did a few internships, and after that I ended up working for a gallery.

During my time with this gallery we opened up a new space, but then the firm that was financing the gallery went under. So, since it was no longer possible for my boss to pay me, she said that I could have the new space if I wanted. That’s why… it was almost by accident that I came to have my own gallery. This was in 1999.

MM: How do you choose the artists that you want to show in your gallery?

AB: When I started the gallery, I did not want to establish an "artistic line", because I like  the idea of being surprised. The work of an artist is not set, it evolves. The main reason that helps me decide to work with an artist is when I think his or her work is singular, and that it would be important to be there to follow its progression.

The choice is based on my personal encounter with an artist, and his or her work. This initial encounter sets the groundwork for a long-term collaboration: not just with the work, but the relations that you can have with an artist - because we need to work together, so there has to be trust … artist trusts the gallerists, and the gallerists trust the artist.

MM: And when you show in fairs, such as this year’s Artissima, how do you choose which artist to bring with you?

AB: Well, you have to know your audience. I decided to show Alun Williams because he had a group show at the
MAMAC in Nice, the museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and also an exhibition at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence - so, quite close geographically to Turin. So, it is also about thinking of more exhibition opportunities in the region. Following the interested audience.

MM: Alun, it seems to me that you’re not really investigating time, but more the resonance of a character

Alun Williams: In fact, I think I’m interested in a kind of intemporal aspect. I’m really interested in taking historical characters and finding a way of making them exist in any kind of time.

One example that helped me a lot was the body of work by Jules Verne - because he essentially sat in his armchair and travelled in time and space in his mind, and thereby in his books. And I end up doing the same thing with my characters. Once I have them, they can go anywhere, in time and space - whether they are historical characters or invented characters.

MM: One of your most recent portraits I saw is God (in the desert)

AW: Yes, I did this whole body of work that I considered to be “religious” paintings, which involved also borrowing from art history. But the religious paintings … that idea is of great interest to me because for most of art history the spectator projected a belief onto the art object, whether it’s a painting or a sculpture, that gave it power and resonance - which is completely parallel to what we expect the spectator to do today: to project a belief onto this thing that is far beyond just what you see. So, I decided it would be interesting to revisit religious paintings, and try to put those two things - an iconographic character and the projection of belief - together in a contemporary context.

In fact, there are a number of portraits of god that I've done. There’s one which borrows from Julian Schnabel, because he did a portrait of god which is just a paint mark, which I believe is itself inspired by a portrait of the Virgin by Francis Picabia which is an ink splash.

But I also did a portrait of god, for example, which .. you know, I was really interested in reading that Kazimir Malevich considered his black square to be a portrait of god. And I couldn't just quote the black square, so I ended up with:
Portrait of God, Malevich drive-in, where the black square becomes the screen of a drive-in movie.

MM: But have you had any backlash from people taking offence?

AW: Not really, I mean … that opens a whole other subject. Actually, there is going to be a book published soon by the University of Quebec in Montrealbased on a round table discussion that we did there, following what happened with Charlie Hebdo. I was invited to this discussion because shortly before that I had this exhibition at Anne’s gallerywith all these projects of god and other characters from religion, which were not just Christian, it was completely multi religious. And there was one portrait of Muhammed, veiled, which was taken from Muslim paintings. And the veil for me is incredibly interesting because it’s this weird and beautiful abstract shape over his face …

MM: And you also have to trust that it is who they say it is behind the veil

AW: Well, that’s the power of the artist. Like when Picabia says - this splash of ink is the Virgin Mary - and you have to accept it, which I think is wonderful, because that’s the power of the artist.

MM: But then you're in this position between literal and absurd, because you say it is this character, so it’s taken literally, but then what you’re looking at is this abstract almost absurd shape or figure  

AW: But that relates back to what I said about religious art: that the spectator projects a belief that this is a statue of the Virgin Mary, but we know that it most certainly doesn't resemble the Virgin Mary. So, between an abstract mark and a portrait of the Virgin Mary or of a saint… there’s the same lack of resemblance.  

MM: They are all in the same category

AW: And the thing that makes it work is the belief projected by the spectator. So, if I put a paint mark on a canvas that is an appropriation of a found paint mark from the streets and call it the Virgin Mary … in most of my exhibitions, the mark will be repeated, so the spectator immediately thinks oh, this means something, because he has seen it several times. And once the spectator realises it’s the Virgin Mary or Jules Verne …

MM: Or the queen of Prussia?

AW: Well, that queen of Prussia is another quote from art history. It’s a painting by Miro. I was really interested in his way of doing portraits because his starting point - like my starting point is the accidental paint mark - his starting point was manuals of spare parts for machines. And he would cut them out, and arrange them to become a figure, and then he would make a painting inspired by that. And all this time that he was doing that, he was in the process of making a portrait of a certain person. And the queen of Prussia was an important political figure, so my quotation in that painting is a quotation of Miro painting the queen of Prussia.

MM: But how do you decide this accidental mark is going to become this character?

AW: In my case, I do a huge amount of research first to figure out a geographical location where the historical character was very present. And it sounds completely crazy, and I thought it was when I began. But the results of the first experiments that I did with that method turned out to be mind blowing.

A lot of the time I do the research and I think: “ok, this is the place I have to go in the hope of finding an accidental paint mark”, and I go there and there’s nothing there, or what’s there is not usable. So then I just have to tell myself: “I’m looking in the wrong place”. So then I go back to the research, and usually - in every case so far - I’ve found a better place, a place that is more appropriate to that historical character … and I go there, and there’s an amazing paint mark that really strangely seems to be related to this character.

MM: Could you give an example?

AW: Giuseppe Garibaldi is a good example. Within this practice, I’m also interested in revisiting details of a historical character that people have forgotten about. For this example, the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain (Mamac) in Nice asked me to do a new body of work, and I decided to do work on Garibaldi - partly because he's just such a colourful character, but also because he was born in Nice. Since I’m living in New York,  the thing that I knew that the public in Nice doesn't think about is that Garibaldi also lived in New York.

And here it’s interesting because Garibaldi was very close to Antonio Meucci - who the Italians know as the true inventor of the telephone - and they lived together in New York. So then I did research about where they lived. There’s a museum which is the house they lived in, in Staten Island, and that house has been moved from it’s original location in order to preserve it. So then I had to figure out where it was before. And then, in my research, I also found out that Garibaldi went fishing every morning at the closest body of water to that house. So, I’m following these indications, and I go to the closest body of water - and there, on the beach, was a huge metal sheet with a big red paint mark on it. And,  of course, Garibaldi is always portrayed in his red uniform...

But that’s one example of me following this kind of trace that comes out of the research and I arrive at the point that I’m going to - and there is an incredibly appropriate mark. So I just have to have faith in that and say: this is it, I’m going to appropriate it, and use it in my paintings, and so it becomes emblematic of that particular character…

Thank you Alun and Anne!


Top image:
Another Virgin, 2014.
Images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Anne Barrault

Maria Martens Serrano is a Dutch-Salvadoran writer. She studied under a liberal arts program at University College Utrecht, going on to graduate with an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Exploring a broad range of interests, Maria previously worked with a news website and a human rights NGO, before becoming involved with several art fairs in the Netherlands. She now writes on topics of arts and culture. In early 2015 Maria joined the team of Artdependence Magazine as editor and contributor.

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