Williamsâ€™s sculptures are made from humble material. The Jersey City artist doesnâ€™t overwork them. Their roughness is part of their elemental power. Some of her sculptures are dark enough to shimmer with a bronze aura under the gallery light. A few others are white as classical a bust. But most are fashioned from orange-red clay that speaks, simultaneously, of the harshness of desert climates and the nurturing quality of garden planters. The tribunal on the south wall of Bridge Gallery consists of faces and necks, each one emerging from the impassivity of a black background, coalescing, here in Bayonne to deliver a tacit judgment from beyond the veil of oblivion.
Each of Williamsâ€™s subjects is a distinct individual. Yet they share an attitude and a disposition. The mixture of love, exasperation, and sheer exhaustion present on all of their faces is common to guardians â€” particularly to African-American women, whoâ€™ve been asked to endure the agony of justice deferred, and to wait, patiently, while the rest of us get our acts together. But anybody who has ever disappointed a grandmother (and we all have) will surely relate.
At â€œDamage and Repair,â€ Heather Williamsâ€™s recent show at Akwaaba Gallery (509 W. South Orange Ave.) the potsherd-colored faces and busts were present, but they werenâ€™t the focus. Instead, they were tucked in between Williamsâ€™s painted assemblies of paper, fiber, wood splinters, and torn fabric. They were observers, just as we were invited to be. â€œProtective Spiritsâ€ flips that around. The clay sculptures are the focus of this show, but Williams has brought along some of her impeccably balanced mixed media canvases to Bayonne, and there they hover on the north wall as a spiritual counterpoint to the materiality of the sculptures. Strips of pages of books are embedded in the paint. Thereâ€™s no way to reconstitute the meaning of the texts sheâ€™s shredded, but key words do pop out of the purple haze: â€œroom,â€ â€œwoke,â€ â€œdisturb,â€ â€œMom.â€
And the artist is fully present in a short film sheâ€™s made for the exhibition. Heather Williams sits in a fragile but beautifully wrought shelter in the midst of a meadowland. Sheâ€™s self-possessed, but imperiled nevertheless â€” exposed to the elements, and to the withering effects of the world. Will she be okay? Well, sheâ€™s got some no-nonsense ancestors looking after her: sternly, but with abiding affection, and tremendous sympathy for her struggle.
(The Bridge Gallery is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon until six, and by appointment from Wednesday through Friday.)