Emma Geliot's picture

Zebra and chateau 2009 to 2011 oil on canvas Emrys Williams

St David's Hall Foyer Galleries 06 September - 02 November 2013

In an exhibition filled with zebras and ships and castles and colour, Emma Geliot falls down a rabbit hole into the intriguing world of Emrys Williams.

Nothing is quite what it seems in Emrys Williams' latest exhibition at St David's Hall in Cardiff. At first sight there are familiar objects, enticing colours and a series of small assemblages amidst the giant canvasses and more domestic-sized paintings and drawings. But the eye catches a wrong note, does a double-take and returns to fall into images, just as Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole into a world that is convincing but other somehow. These domestic scenes and landscapes are filled with shadow that can't possibly come from the light sources depicted, and reflections plunge downwards, or disappear across a sea that should be choppy as yachts heel across them in a wind that doesn't break the glassy surface of the water.The drawings, so rarely exhibited, give a glimpse into the inner workings of Williams' mind and begin to set up the paintings and reveal the play between back- and foreground, closely observed detail and hinted-at feeling. Yet the paintings are dream-like, but not in the surreal sense, rather they are as disturbingly real as the nightmare that wakes us with residual images that linger through the rest of the day. Perspective is skewed, horizontal planes change course behind objects that have no right to be where they are and colours, that at first seem to decorate, draw the eye away from the red herring - the red coat of the horseman diverts attention from what seems like an historical scene so that the supertanker on the horizon takes some time to register. If this were a Hitchock film, the red coat would be that most diversionary of plot devices the Macguffin.* Williams paints instinctively and intuitively, but often paintings take months or even years to be resolved. He is concerned with a topography of the mind, rather than dreamy fantasy landscapes, and it comes as no surprise that he has been involved in creating those other not-real scenes for theatre on an even grander scale than we see here (and some of these paintings are huge). Although let's be clear, while his mind is relaxing into the act of painting or drawing, or assembling found objects to create absurd relationships, it is a mind that is stuffed full of references - literary, historical, philosophical, psychological - along with all of the art he has even seen and admired.The clue to this is in the exhibition's title Zen Zebra. The results are layers of meaning along with the layers of paint. He understands the rules of perspective and of scale and so knows that bending those rules will set off subliminal ripples of discomfort.

However, the discomfort is soon over-ridden by covetousness (I'm still wondering how many walls I'd have to knock down to fit in one of the largest Zebra paintings) and by the sheer pleasure of walking though this major survey show, picking up references, overlaying others that are triggered by a personal response. A signpost in one of the paintings points to Dalkey (Williams was artist in residence in the Dalkey Heritage Centre, Dublin, in 2005) and *ping* my mind jumps to Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive and then on to The Third Policeman. Both novels set out the impossible and the absurd, withincreasingly ludicrous hypotheses backed up by copious footnotes that eventually begin to take over the page. The result in O'Brien's work is that there are two books running concurrently. Similarly Williams' show, seen as a chronology of ideas (but not hung in that way), reveals two narratives: The conscious composition of objects and the application of paint to create an aesthetic andpleasurable response, offset by something that plumbs deeper and throws up questions at a subconscious level.

*While I was double checking my use of MacGuffin I stumbled across this, which just goes to show something or other.