Selected texts and statements

"Brought to Light" Oriel Mostyn Gallery Llandudno 2005/6


Emrys Williams

It is not every day that one has the opportunity to select a work from a national collection, let alone to see one of one's ovwi paintings hang next to this choice. The project involves initial excitement giving way to a certain trepidation, with questions arising about self-representation and the aims of one's own work. Wandering around the large rooms of the National Museum one also becomes acutely aware of the fact that the work has been through the selective filtering process of museum curatorship, years of an artist's practice have to be encapsulated in the one significant acquisition. Considering work in progress in the studio against this measurement becomes a humbling experience.

Coming to choose something in the museum I felt I was looking for a large-scale work that would reflect my own current interest in making paintings of a certain size. My pieces Place and Town play with scale, ambiguity, spatial displacement and the poetics of illusion. I have been exploring physical qualities of the material, working with oil and wax in relation to the expressive possibilities of the surface. As I was very involved in a new body of work that had a relationship to earlier Italian painting, I decided to present new pieces rather than start on specific paintings for the exhibition. Therefore, I was searching for the kind of painting that might have a complexity, a sort of'world view'about it (an imaginative world, parallel to the real). In addition there was the fact that one was being given a free choice, with the suggestion that certain works would not be available for loan. My initial wish list included mostly largish paintings; this was fun to do. Of course I was never going to get the Poussin (the museum do not own it, which makes it difficult to lend to your friends, even if they are Oriel Mostyn). I rather liked the big Hockney, but it had just been put back up on the wall after a long absence.

In the end I got the Canaletto and I am rather pleased to have it as my final choice. Normally it is presented high up in the museum, above another painting;'skied', I think, was the term used when paintings were presented like this in salons. For me the picture feels modern, with a schematic formality and large areas of empty space; it will breathe again on the white walls of Oriel Mostyn.


The painting shows an image of a couple walking in the foreground, they visually lead the spectator into the work; they face the depth of the picture space that we are invited to explore. This device makes the picture about viewing and contemplation. The world laid out before us in the painting therefore seems to exist as much in the mind's eye as in the apparent topography of the scene. The fall of the sunlight acts as a construction device, further establishing the sense of a poetic space. The organisation of the view is layered and complex but the whole image exists as in one moment. It is not a painting that was made outside, it must have been a construct made in the studio, yet it appears natural and convincing. We all remember afternoons somewhere, moments of sunlight and shadow that perhaps seem like no other; all moments are fleeting and unique, never to be lived again. In my own work I am interested in such feelings, albeit in another context. It is for these reasons that I am rather pleased that I ended up with the Canaletto.

Emrys Williams

Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

The Bacino di San Marco, looking north

Oil on canvas Olew ar gynfas

Canaletto was the first great Venetian view painter, specialising in topographical and imaginary landscapes. Influenced by Giovanni Panini and Luca Carlevaris, his work was much sought after by British visitors on the Grand Tour. He spent the years 1746-55 in England where he found success with his images of London and depictions of great country houses. This painting offers a depiction of Venice that is little changed today. It probably dates from around 1730, and shows the view from the Giudecca towards the basin of San Marco. The scene takes in such Venetian landmarks as St Mark's Basilica, the Doge's Palace and the original Campanile. Canaletto has added narrative interest with the inclusion of a fashionably dressed couple in the foreground.




ORIEL Gallery Cardiff 1992


The Art of Emrys Williams by Paul Moorhouse



'...the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.'>'>

Since the early 1980s Emrys Williams has lived and worked in Rhos-on-Sea, a quiet seaside town on the North Wales Coast not far from Colwyn Bay. Although based on observation of this place, the paintings he has made in the last ten years reveal a deeper purpose. Rather than depicting a particular location Williams has been engaged with creating a kind of parallel reality: one which is rooted in everyday experience but also removed from it.

In his recent work figures hurry along a promenade or stand, sheltering beneath umbrellas. Clouds hang over the scene and on the horizon distant boats are silhouetted against the sky. It all seems reassuringly familiar the sights one would expect to encounter in any seaside town. But underlying this apparent normality a disquieting strangeness is apparent.   The hurrying figures seem almost to be trying to escape from the paintings. Those that remain have their backs to the spectator as they stare into the interior spaceof their painted world. An odd stillness and exaggerated clarity pervades the scene. And, from beneath the surface of these silent snapshots, a hidden architecture of visual rhymes slowly emerges. The key to this ambivalence is the inspiration Williams has drawn from modem Irterature; in particular the novels of Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. This essay will focus on the nature of this literary influence and on the development in Williams' work of, what he has called, 'a kind of fiction'. p)

'And suddenly the memory returns'm

Williams read Proust's vast masterpiece Remembrance of Things Post (1913-27) as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1976-80. Dispensing with a conventional narrative structure, the novel records the myriad memories evoked in the narrator's mind by external events. Williams was deeply impressed by the extreme subjectivity of the novel, in particular by Proust's concept of'involuntary memory', and it confirmed for him the potential of autobiographical material as an artistic resource. Its influence is apparent in the large-scale paintings which Williams executed during the early 1980s.

Using old photographs, postcards, cine films recording his own childhood holidays and outings, and relying simply on memory, Williams' artistic endeavour became a process of mining a mental reservoir of previous experience. On a practical level it proceeded as an effort to externalise images which for Williams functioned as 'emblems of one's subconscious'. Central to this process was the use of chance, semi­automatic techniques and association. Beginning with a fragment of present experience, or a barely glimpsed recollection, Williams exploited the free movement of thickly applied paint as a way of bringing buried memories into the light of recognition. The motifs which evolved as a result of this process - a car interior, a cable car, a steam engine and a station platform - possess this emblematic significance. They are redolent with Williams' remembrance of his own past.

'Ineluctable modality of the visible''"

Another important literary influence has been James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1922). Like Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses departs from conventions of plot and characterisation. It replaces these elements with a richly detailed evocation of a single day set in Dublin. In common with Proust the raw material for Joyce's prose is subjective experience. But whereas Proust was principally concerned with the memories evoked by external events, Joyce addressed the more complex issue of the way the impressions we receive from the world cause, and became linked with, a multiplicity of subjective events: not only memory but also imagination, sensation and other bodily functions. Joyce's celebrated 'stream of consciousness' technique evokes these experiences by recording the dialogue between perception and the mental and physical responses inspired by passive impressions.

The influence of this literary device is evident in Williams' employment of a similar stream of consciousness technique within a visual rather than a literary context. In paintings such as Walk to Rhos-on-Sea 1980-1 Williams sought to establish a parallel between the painting process and the nature of experience. As such the visual aspect of walking along the promenade is only part of the painting's subject. The underlying issue explored in this work is the way this kind of simple experience generates a complex pattern of internal impressions and sensations. One of Joyce's most important innovations in Ulysses was his attempt to express non-verbal experience: feelings rather than thoughts. He achieved this by informing his prose with a stylistic dimension which goes beyond the literal meaning of his sentences. The sound and rhythm of the words and patterns of imagery convey experiences, which could not be adequately put across solely by description. The result is an overt and highly subjective stylisation, in the sense that the reader is made aware of the author's presence and art in the way the prose is organised and manipulated. Williams sees this stylisation as a parallel for the subjective nature of experience, in particular the way we filter, organise and process our impressions of the external world. This concept has been of fundamental importance in the overt and highly individualistic stylisation, which characterises Williams' work since 1989.

The free association, which Williams employed in his earlier painting, was valuable in exposing a mine of personal images. Having identified these motifs Williams' recent work has been able to manipulate them in a more conscious and deliberate way. The central features of Williams' method, and its capacity to locate the spectator in a world which is both familiar and yet strange, are evident in L'heure du the 1990-1. The subject of the painting seems straightforward enough. An elderly woman pauses beneath her umbrella, looking over the promenade rail at a group of distant boats. To her left and right we catch glimpses of other pedestrians. Overhead large clouds pass by. Yet Williams has recorded this unextraordinary moment, the kind of experience we register unconsciously, with a clarity, precision and formal strength, which heightens our awareness of it. Paradoxically, at the same time the scene seems unreal because of its insistent artificiality. We sense a patterning and a formal idealising which betray the emphatic subjectivity of Williams' descnption. All unnecessary detail has been edited out and the few remaining objects have been refined and simplified. Reduced to their formal essences these objects are then locked into a highly geometric structure. The pole and the promenade rail define a large rectangular area, parallel to the picture plane, which is sub-divided by the horizon. The strict geometry of this arrangement acts as a foil for the irregular rhyming shapes of the clouds, distant landmass and horizon. Other visual echoes are evident: pole and umbrella-handle, horizon and rail, boats and umbrella tops. The way these different formal element connect and contrast, establish rhythms and rhymes, and articulate the overall design, sets up a kind of visual syntax analogous to the way Joyce draws words into patterns of sound, rhythm and imagery: structure which exist above and in addition to their literal meaning. Williams thus employs style as a way of asserting the subjectivity of experience.

'A stain upon the silence'

The extra-literal and purely formal qualities which Williams imposes on the scenes he depicts are related t< the literary qualities he admires in Joyce. The paintings thus have a 'formal toughness' and an absence c narrative which links his aims with artists working in a purely abstract vein, notably (and surprising though it may seem) minimal art, with whose purity and refinement Williams feels a particular affinity. It would be mistake however to regard Williams' paintings as lacking in subject or atmosphere, and in this respect the< novels of Samuel Beckett have been a principal influence.

Beckett's fiction expresses an essentially bleak view of the condition of mankind. In the great trilogy c novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnameable (1953) there is a progressively reductive depiction of existence. In the first book the crippled Molloy recounts the trials he endures while searching for his mother. A single moment of comparative happiness during this odyssey is provided by the permutations generated while Molloy passes sixteen stones around his pockets. In Malone Dies, Malone tells himself stories while waiting in his bed for death.   In The Unnameable the narrator exists in a formless limbo and the prose records a frenzied mental quest for identity.   Parallel to this process of narrative attrition the language of Beckett's prose becomes increasingly spare and progressively intense in it concentration.

As his paintings attest, Williams shares Beckett's view of life as banal and meaningless. They depict solitary figures enclosed in space and silence, peering at the horizon in an atmosphere of longing or memory) others flee from view, seeking shelter or simply waiting. Little happens, their actions seem pointless and the possibility of change hopeless. Yet, despite this inertia Williams' paintings express an optimistic view c life. The paintings are light-filled and tranquil and, though seemingly aimless, his figures enjoy a harmonious relationship with the landscape. Moreover, Williams finds, in the way his characters endure their situation essential nobility in the condition of man. In common with Beckett's prose, Williams' visual vocabulary is terse, minimal, and employs permutation and repetition. As with the stones which Molloy passes from pocket to pocket, generating different combinations in each, Williams' paintings celebrate the capacity of art to impose order on chaos. And, just as Beckett creates a vast, stylistically complex prose structure out c virtually nothing - a 'stain upon the silence' as he called it - Williams' art takes banal elements of every day reality and, through the transforming power of art, reorganises them into sophisticated visual images. The' kind of fiction', which Williams creates thus, communicates an. excitement in the act of seeing and the experience of being.


1. Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past, Vol I 'Swarm's Way', Part 1(1913). Engl. trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, London 1976, p.61

      2    All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are statements by the artist in an interview with the author on 9 May 1992

       3    Marcel Proust op.cit p.61

       4    James Joyce. Ulysses (1922), reprinted London 1977. p.42