Exhibition at Ohio Art League X Space is longtime local artist’s first solo show in Columbus
You might have noticed the fidget spinner shapes in much of Roger Williams' recent work before the artist pointed it out. But once he pulls his key chain out of his front pants pocket — a key chain that has one of the three-winged things connected to it — and holds it up to a painting to show you how he literally traces the shape onto his bright-colored, multi-layered works that fairly careen through worlds of the artist's imagination, you can't miss them.
The same might be said for the ubiquitous nature of Williams' public murals scattered throughout Columbus. Chances are you've seen them in the Hilltop or the Short North, or maybe entering Downtown on Third Street. But once they're pointed out to you, you can't help but notice.
“I knew Keith Haring before he died. He did a lot of graffiti and a lot of legitimate murals around New York City. I said, ‘If he can do that, I can do murals around Columbus,'” Williams said in an interview at his visually frenetic Olde Towne East studio. “I was one of the first to do them. The problem has always been that I don't think Columbus wants murals until you go and beat them over the head with a ball bat.”
In addition to the murals, Williams has shown in numerous group shows and has had his work exhibited in galleries and other art spaces around the world — the fruit of his labor throughout a five-decades-long career that's featured two stints in Columbus bookended around a 20-year period in New York City. But what he hasn't had is a solo show here in his adopted hometown (Williams grew up in Logan, Ohio). Or at least he hadn't until this month. A selection of recent works titled “Urban Deconstructions” is on exhibit at Ohio Art League's X Space gallery in Franklinton. A reception will be held Friday, Oct. 12, coinciding with the monthly Franklinton Friday art events throughout the neighborhood.
“I'm not a drippy-drippy, painterly guy because there's so damn many of them in Columbus and I don't want to be another one,” Williams said. “I'm one of the only deconstructivist artists to survive in Columbus. I've managed to eke out a living.”
Williams has long been on the edge, testing boundaries and open to the next adventure. He left Logan for Columbus “about two hours after I graduated high school,” he said. Dyslexia affected his studies, but he found a way by making art.
“I spent all my time in the art room, so my art teacher made up a portfolio and sent it out to a bunch of art schools,” Williams said. Four years at CCAD were followed by seven more on faculty, during which time Williams established a studio in German Village. His work began attracting dealers and gallerists, and, in 1980, he was offered a studio apartment on Broadway.
“I packed up all my stuff and didn't come back for 20 years,” Williams said. “I wanted to see where the road went because I was always curious how I would do in New York.”
He spent much of his time those 20 years working for international artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sol LeWitt and Andy Warhol. “As janitor, touch-up and delivery,” Williams said. “Don't get any ideas that I was a big shot.”
But the time and connections taught him what to do. “Andy Warhol said, ‘Embrace the present, find objects and events that define your own time and place, and paint it as pop art. If you know how to paint and how to compose and understand color and whatnot, maybe you'll be famous,'” Williams said. And also what not to do (“Don't be high on heroin every day”).
In 1990, after “partying pretty much every day for 20 years,” Williams moved back to Columbus, settling in his current Olde Towne East studio, which, according to the artist, had previously been a “speakeasy, after-hours bar and whorehouse upstairs.” “I had a suitcase full of money,” he said, “but I had to get straight, and I had to get healthy.”
It was at this time he embraced deconstructivism, and he's been finding people and images and movements and taking them apart ever since.
“Anime, hip hop, video game animation,” Williams said. “People recognize the style because nobody has my style, my lyrics. The lyrics are the invention, what's important about the art, the, ‘What are you going to paint?' Wire frame [grids], vortexes, spinners.”
“If Warhol was alive today, instead of painting Campbell's soup cans, he'd say, ‘It's gotta be spinners.'”