Studio Visit: Dale Williams

by Michael Stalios

All photographs by Katherine Yiu

Just east of 3rd Avenue on Douglass St. there’s a large yellow sign hosting a proud red border. Fat block letters read “Gowanus Arts, 295.” It’s a commanding blade braced to a classic façade.

Once upon a time, this address housed a soap factory. For the last thirty years though, the site has served as studio space for a pile of local artists and performers from a variety of disciplines. In a rapidly changing landscape the Gowanus Arts building remains a landmark for this generation.

Since 1997 Dale Williams has been painting in this building. A graduate of Cooper Union and Hunter College’s MFA program, Dale has been showing his work in and around New York City since the nineteen-eighties. While he has amassed a prolific inventory over the decades, it was only in the last several years that his process and product have brought Dale great satisfaction and some modest acclaim.

In 2007 the artist collaborated with author Ben Miller on a panoramic novel entitled ‘Meanwhile in The Dronx.’ The story comes complete with a map of this sixth borough and a number of figures typical of Dale’s approach: sometimes forlorn, down but not out, fated, uncomplicated. They are ‘figural embodiments that might serve as metaphors for the complexity of experience, both personal and shared.’ They are also morbidly comic in their posture and disposition.

Following The Dronx series, Dale embarked upon ‘Strugglers and Stragglers.’ These large scale pieces are depicted in a variety of mediums including oil stick, charcoal, acrylic and oil on paper. The works were born of a search of Dale’s many sketchbooks, whereby those smaller, older works became models for each piece. In most cases he used a grid and provided a faithful rendering of a favored character. This meticulous approach earned Dale the Juror’s Award for ‘Dire’ at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center’s ‘Paperworks Unbound’ exhibit last autumn.

The effort represents perfectly his sentiment that ‘the figures in the work, and the works themselves, exhibit varying degrees of distress. The pictures are like healed scars – they bear evidence of a wounding trial.’ Although, truth be told, the figure in that piece, ‘Dire,’ has hardly had a chance to heal.

However, because of the scale of a more recent collaboration with The Dronx author, Dale would dramatically change his approach. For the first cycle of this enterprise, entitled ‘Cage Dies Bird Flies,’ the painter produced eighty-one works within twelve months, a uniform black and white acrylic on paper. The figures and circumstances were all brand new; all in reaction to language the author would send his way.

The artist’s idea was to complete each item in one shot. He ‘wouldn’t leave the studio without finishing a piece.’ As such some were complete in thirty minutes, some took all day, dependent on the time the artist had at his disposal. Newly liberated, Dale was at long last awarded his first grant courtesy of the 2014 Fellowship for Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

‘This process has been a big influence on work that I have done subsequently,’ says the seasoned painter. These days Dale responds intuitively to the canvas rather than bringing an image to it. ‘There’s a lot of waiting,’ he says, while he ‘envisions things there that are suggested by the grains of the canvas.’ And it is clear that both the means and the end are bringing him great satisfaction.

Dale, as ever, remains at work, these days on a new series loosely titled ‘The New Open Book’ in reference, of course, to ‘The Open Book,’ an accordion work of folding panels that Dale presented at the Drawing Center in 1989. This was Dale’s first work that presented a unified sequence of images, a practice he would of course revisit to great effect with ‘Strugglers and Stragglers’ and ‘Cage Dies’ among others. The current version encompasses his newly nurtured intuitive approach not just within the four corners of one painting but also as each work predicates the feeling or context of that which follows. ‘One piece influences the next,’ Dale explains.

This is a statement that perhaps takes on a larger context when his career comes back into focus. For three and a half decades Dale Williams has been at work. ‘Why do I need to see these figures, and why do I think someone should want to see them? Each successive work is an effort to answer this question.’ Well, his effort is being noticed.

Dale Williams is a Gowanus Open Studios 2015 participating artist. His studio will be open during GOS 2015 on October 17-18, from noon-6:00pm.