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A Tale of Two Openings: Robin F. Williams and Matthew Hansel

The weather bounces quickly from warm to cool here in New York as autumn fights to gain some footing. I found similar effect between two shows this evening, Robin F. Williams’s Out Lookers at PPOW and Matthew Hansel’s Inner Demon Delectatio at The Hole.

Rumor has it that Williams has a long waiting list for potential buyers of her work. You could feel this energy alone on Broadway outside of PPOW. We were like moths to a blazing inferno. And inside the paintings invite you to move closer to witness the different layers and techniques Williams uses to create these extravagant yet simple compositions that feel infinite.

While the figures depicted in the works are otherworldly—maybe some alternate universe even--they are unquestionably female. Williams depicts the figures as translucent, connected to everything, so if these figures are from another dimension, we’re in sync with them, we’re getting a peek inside another world. Some stare at us, and we stare back into endless histories and cultural misunderstandings of the feminine. While some of Williams’s past paintings depict smiles that might come off as fake, paired with cold eyes, these women, when they are smiling, are warm and full of joy. They are neither shy nor self-conscious nor afraid. They are whispering, come along, let us show you what true connection means.

For those paintings where there is less joy, there is an urgency. Ghost at War depicts a woman pulling something with a rope. Her vagina almost looks like a wound. Out of necessity to gain leverage, her legs are open. Perhaps she is pulling those afraid of the feminine closer to the place where all life emerges. Yes, there is pain here, but underneath it lies strength, power, and nurturing.

These paintings need to be seen again. To be alone with them. To let their warmth heal us. To spend some time with other beings in other worlds. To remind us that we are never alone.

A few blocks away, the warmth continued for a bit outside of The Hole. The BBQ and steakhouse restaurant, Holy Ground, had set up a food truck with an extremely handsome and muscular man holding court on the grill. But the bouncer at the door checking our vaccine cards signaled that this event would be cool. Welcome inside, show us your face, and have a glass of prosecco from the self-serve fountain. Overheard was one woman who voiced that she was a bit frightened, that she wanted to hide when seeing strangers approach her, as if this were her first public event she had attended since the pandemic. This fear paired perfectly with some of the themes of the show. Especially since Hansel began imagining the works during the quarantine.

The work of Hieronymus Bosch inspired Hansel to create these paradoxical worlds where beauty lives alongside the grotesque. Yet unlike Bosch’s terrifying worlds, the demons depicted in the paintings seem either like caricatures or as if they just walked off the runway at Paris fashion week. In To Make Room For The Garden You Must First Burn the House, one of the demons carries a purse seemingly made out of its own skin. They are more comical than terrifying.

The paintings are relatively flat with little texture, which creates a distinct distance between us and the beings depicted in the pictures. These paintings are a reminder of all the time we spent alone during the pandemic when we only saw our loved ones and work colleagues behind a lit screen. They also remind us of the dreams we had at night and during each monotonous day, imagining all the trouble we’d get into when the world became open to us again.

The strongest works are the paintings in the back room where there are little or no humans, only demons living in a world made of cheese. The compositions are much more playful and simple compared to the mostly classical layouts in the front two rooms (that also seemed to be inspired by some of Max Ernst’s work). The little details in the cheese paintings charm and one can get lost in a narrative here. Thematically, having these cheese paintings in the back, becomes not only like a French dessert but also a back stage area for the demons that propagate all the paintings. Here we can leave the scarily comical debauchery behind and just get lost in the paintings.

And, after a nice long pandemic, don’t you want to take your mask off, and have some cheese in a cool room with other humans, and perhaps a few demons, to commiserate on the state of the world and wonder how art can help us all get better?

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