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You can be forgiven if your eye wanders in “Swim,” Charles Williams’ current solo show at Morton Fine Art. Between the clutter of the gallery and the works themselves—closely hung bursts of contrast in black and white—there is a lot to digest. But it’s impossible even for passersby to miss the centerpiece of the exhibition, Lost and Found #1, an immersive six-by-eight-foot canvas depicting frothy waves at night in photorealistic detail. The painting, mostly in black, simultaneously beckons and unnerves.
Williams’s interest in water as a theme derives from his lifelong fear of swimming. He attributes the phobia both to his experience of nearly drowning at age 11 and to the racial stereotypes surrounding swimming that he faced growing up black in South Carolina. In the handful of fragmented self-portraits on view, Williams, who still doesn’t know how to swim, depicts himself variously in goggles, pool floaties, and wearing a towel draped over his head.
While the towel-as-hoodie is Williams’ most overt reference to the idea of swimming pools as sites of racial tension, race permeates the exhibition in other ways. In some portraits Williams’ face floats disembodied, fracturing at its edges into individual brushstrokes in black and brown. It’s a literal deconstruction of the artist’s skin color—and the various tones and associations, including fear, that come with it.
The exploration of black is further developed in nearby paintings from the Nighttime series, in which Williams has painted waves in a heavy black impasto over backgrounds of the same color. These smaller paintings, as well as the artist’s closely cropped monochrome seascapes on Mylar, deserve a closer look. Unfortunately, the installation gives them little room to breathe. Viewers are better off focusing on the large-scale work; the tide will carry you from there.
“Swim” runs until Oct. 13. 1781 Florida Ave. N.W.
Charles Williams, Lost and Found 1, 72″x 96,” oil on canvas, Courtesy of Morton Fine Art