There’s always a lot more going on in Lorna Williams’ sculptures than meets the eye.
Take “attuned,” a piece that was a highlight of the recent “Ephemera Obscura” group exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center and is now on view in Williams’ brilliant solo show at NOCCA’s 5 Press Gallery in the Faubourg Marigny. It’s a complex construction of various mechanical parts including electrical sockets, tuning pegs, a clock mechanism and bolts woven together with copper wire that from the side resembles a kind of mechanized bowlike weapon.
But a closer look reveals the sinuous shape of a backbone, rib cage and pelvis — one that hovers somewhere between fragility and resilience. It’s body as weapon, albeit one that is potentially subject to the kind of mechanical failure that befalls every intricately calibrated system.
And then there’s “onus,” which at first look seems to be a kind of flayed animal skin suspended from a branch — until you get closer and see that what looks like fur from a distance is actually hundreds of copper nails pounded into a sinuously twisted piece of tree bark, creating an object that is simultaneously seductive and vaguely threatening, like the remnant of an African Nkondi warrior figure that has accomplished its task and shed its nail-punctured skin.
Born in New Orleans, Williams graduated from NOCCA before studying at various art schools including the Maryland Institute College of Art, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
But New Orleans has always played a strong foundational role in Williams’ artistic practice.
“In New Orleans, everyone is an artist,” Williams said in an Art in America interview accompanying a well-received solo exhibition in New York City in 2011. “We know how to take s*** and make gold. That's something I hold very close to me.”
Williams also draws correspondences between the definitive New Orleans experience of making music and making visual art.
“I use color, texture, pattern and found materials the same way that musicians use instruments— conjuring sounds that then are arranged and composed to produce music,” Williams said in a statement accompanying that same show.
Synthesizing those disparate materials in unexpected and visually surprising ways is a hallmark of Williams’ process. In “aimed sensory” (a piece not in the show but included on the artist's website ) an isolated tree branch is punctured throughout its length by metallic flashes that upon closer inspection turn out to be copper shell casings, giving an underpinning of violence to a piece that otherwise has all the serene simplicity of a koan.
And everywhere is the presence of the human body.
Immediately representative of a human skull, Williams’ “cleaved” is one of the more visually literal pieces in the show. And it’s another of the best examples of the artist's mastery of materials, using everything from bike parts and plumbing hardware to chunks of agate, a turtle shell and plaster molds of teeth to create a quietly chilling modern vanitas, or reflection on human mortality. (It’s also one of the pieces that best demonstrate Williams’ understated sense of humor. Ask a gallery attendant how to make the piece “talk” to you.)
But it’s a large two-part piece in the center of the gallery that perhaps best synthesizes Williams’ formal prowess and conceptual depth. Titled “surge <> i’niSHe,at,” it consists of a large suspended torsolike assemblage attached to a more delicate figure built around a miniature skeleton, instantly calling to mind the linked processes of birth and death.
Look closer, though, and you’ll find that the larger piece contains details like a small pencil, shapes that suggest the rigging of sails on slave ships, and a human body with both male and female attributes, making the piece a kind of self-portrait of a NOCCA-trained queer artist of color.
In its complex layers of detail, the piece contains multitudes. And like all the works in this beautifully curated and immensely engaging show, it rewards close and sustained inspection.
Lorna Williams: lo-cus
WHEN: Thursdays - Sundays (closed Mondays through Wednesdays), 10 a.m.-3 p.m. until Nov. 26
WHERE: NOCCA’s 5 Press Gallery
5 Press St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 249-5624 and 5pressgallery.com