It is a source of both divine and evil. It is vulnerable and powerful. It is both a light filter and its ultimate source. The eye, wrote a 20th-century Spanish poet Juan Eduardo Cirlot (citing the ancient Greeks) “could not see the sun unless it were in some way a sun itself.” The eye is luminous; Seeing is “a spiritual act and symbolizes understanding.”
The eye – with its many meanings – is a recurring theme in Didier William’s fantastical (and fantastical) paintings, which are currently the subject of the solo exhibition Didier William: Things Like This Don’t Happen Here James Fuentes Gallery in Hollywood. Amidst otherworldly landscapes that seem to buzz with sensation and pulse with electricity, William places mysterious, faceless figures whose skin is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of eyes.
The eyes are a way for black bodies to reflect the intense scrutiny they are so often subjected to. “It’s a way for the characters in my paintings to return the curious gaze,” William told me in a 2018 phone interview. “Not just with their eyes, but with every square inch of their skin.”
The eyes also have other purposes. “They are like apotropaic amulets that ward off the evil eye: an army of ever watchful, unremitting, cyclopean eyes,” wrote the critic Zoé Samudzi in a short monograph from Williams’ work published in 2021. “They are the realization of an autonomous and collectivized claim to the right to look.”
A lot happens in the work of William, a Haitian-born, Miami-raised artist now based in Philadelphia. His work first caught my attention in the 2018 group show Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. This exhibition featured his 2015 painting They Play Too Much Till We Stop Playing, in which one of his eye-covered characters fights with shadowed limbs on a wooden stage. Was it body wrestling with invisible powers? Or fight yourself? It’s hard to say, but the argument was exciting.
Since then I have come across his work in groups a few times, most recently in “Form of Forecast: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s-Present‘, which was presented at (and will be traveling to) the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago earlier this year. Institute for Contemporary Art Boston in the autumn).
Every time I came across William’s paintings, I was amazed – not only by the way he uses imagery, but also by the careful crafting of his pieces. The exhibition at James Fuentes, which opened the New York gallery owner’s Los Angeles premises earlier last month and is now in its final days, offers an opportunity to view a range of his works in a single location on the West Coast.
The solo exhibition brings together 14 new paintings that deal with both the otherworldly and the biographical.
A large vertical canvas titled Plonje (Diving) created this year depicts three faceless figures plunging into a depth of water. It commemorates how the seas around Haiti have served as a graveyard for Africans and their descendants, from the Middle Passage to the perilous voyages Haitians still make to Florida today. But these supernatural, eye-covered bodies slip through a body of water that also has eyes. The scene evokes death, but there is also life. The mystical nature of the characters reminds me of that Drexciyathe mythical world invented by the Detroit music group of the same name – an underwater universe populated by superhuman offspring of enslaved women whose bodies were thrown from slave ships.
Another canvas, I Wanted Her to Kill Him, I Know Why She Didn’t, also from 2023, is more personal. It was inspired by the artist’s mother, a restaurant worker who was struggling with an abusive boss. It shows a figure shooting light rays at another figure in an abstracted space. The walls are covered with a repeating pattern veve Symbols, the ritual patterns used in Haitian vodou. In this case, a heart pattern reminiscent of Erzulie Dantor, a protective maternal spirit.
From afar, the images swirl and simmer with movement and bright pops of color. Particularly memorable is a large horizontal piece inspired by an episode from William’s childhood when he was hit by a car after chasing his dog down a busy street. “My Father’s Nightmares: 40mph Hit” features a substitute for the artist who is catapulted into the air by the force of the impact; In the distance, his father is waving his arms helplessly. The scene is held together by a thread of blue and white light that connects the two figures but also seems to follow William’s movements through time and space. Can a car crash be hauntingly beautiful? This is.
Most notable, however, are the details you will discover as you get closer. William creates his images on wood panels and often carves the eye patterns into the wood itself, albeit very lightly. This adds texture to his eyes, but not in a way that severely disrupts the surface of the image. It deepens the sense of illusion: its figures are part of the painting, but not fully part of the painting – they inhabit a subterranean material state.
William likes to say that he “conflicts painting with other mediums”. I daresay “conjure” would be a more appropriate word as these are works that feel like they’ve been touched by a little magic.
“Didier William: That doesn’t happen here”
Where: James Fuentes, 5015 Melrose Ave.
If: Until June 17th
The information: jamesfuentes.com