Underground (adjective): situated beneath the surface. Or if you prefer, an alternative to the mainstream. The term originated in historical action under harsh regimes; during World War II, “the underground” referred to European resistance movements cloaked in secrecy for safety. It later came to mean the counterculture of the 1960’s: existentialists and beats, free thinkers and radicals.
Mark Williams is the latest free thinker to exhibit at EBK Gallery [small works]. A stylish, narrow spot in downtown Hartford, EBK showcases contemporary art in bite-sized exhibitions, two weeks each. Williams’s mixed media paintings are abstracts in acrylic and screen print. Pink and yellow ink slides down fabrics patterned with flowers and circus animals. At EBK they’re hung under bright gallery lights. Shine them with ultraviolet and their secrets emerge: the ink and paint are fluorescent and make shapes that glow like neon hieroglyphics.
EBK is a street level space but this work is rooted in the underground. The paintings are a sample of Williams’s extensive series on caves. Research has been vast; the artist has explored over eighty caves in the past fourteen years, the first visited on a whim inspired by a roadside billboard. Williams has descended stories beneath the ground, jumpsuited and headlamped; he has crawled through keyholes in wild caverns one day and visited gift shops in tourist-baiting show caves the next. Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas. Fantastic Caverns. Cosmic Cavern. Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave. Lost Sea. He attends national caving conventions and gains access to spaces normally closed to public eyes. Stalactites, stalagmites, reflection pools, and flowstones—a lovely word for eroded calcite deposits—inform this work, as does the natural phosphorescence that causes cavers to pack blacklight flashlights.
When I think of underground art, I think of a certain dated subversion: trespassing, drug culture, manifestos. Graffiti in the subway tunnels of seventies NYC. Phosphorescent ink on rock posters from the late sixties, created by artists like Victor Moscoso to echo psychedelic trends in fashion. Moscoso studied under modernist Josef Albers; his designs played with his teacher’s bold color theory but traded the squares for the sinuous lines of art nouveau, using ornate text and negative space that made band names like The Doors hard to read. Or maybe they made viewers work harder to read them.
The cave paintings at EBK, and the many more I saw in Williams’s studio, respect this breed of pop. Williams’s colors are clashing DayGlo, the shapes freeform and flowing like water down cave walls. Occasionally the ink drips to the canvas edge. Lines imitate the crazyland of underground rock formations. Some paintings are pixilated with the careful Ben-Day dots of old school commercial printing, the comic book technique turned high art so famously by Roy Lichtenstein. Some resemble the swirled surfaces of bowling balls; others, polka-dotted chanterelles. The work also conjures domesticity. Marks are made on vintage textiles stretched over frames like tightly made beds; look closely and you’ll see cartoon characters staring out from under the ink. Double Cub Run (2015) is covered with fussy floral upholstery in retro Tupperware shades of rust, mustard, and avocado, screen printed in drizzles like chocolate syrup spilled on a grandmother’s couch.
Most of the paintings are split into two panels, each with similar marks on a different background: two ways of seeing the rocky outlines, until the UV light switches on and you have four. A gesture to those underground pools, or “mirror lakes”—untouched by wind, they offer near-perfect reflections. Yellow Orange Luray (2014) crackles with thin splatters of yellow and pink; a blacklight reveals thicker patterns in lurid yellow-green and red, a different side to the same story.
Nostalgia fascinates Williams. Beyond their nods to pop, these paintings speak to the heyday of souvenir tourism. “Youth and Kitsch” is how critic Steven Heller summarizes psychedelia’s appeal. And kitsch prevails in the gift shop ephemera that Williams collects while caving: placemats, decals, personalized mugs, and, incredibly, a blacklight-reactive apron for 1970’s spelunking chefs. But it also shines through in the cheerful flea market fabrics, the playful quality of his puffier shapes. Show caves sometimes nickname their rock formations (Stage Curtain, Fried Eggs) or decorate caverns with statues of gnomes. It annoys more stuffy cavers, but Williams sees it as an effort to familiarize alien places and make them consumable—in other words, less underground. His Orange Green Bluff River (2015) shows this best with its circus seals and puppies peeking out from rock jags painted in slime green.
His past work has focused on antiwar themes and it’s tempting to make connections here to camouflage and tunnel warfare. But the artist is smart to expound on our deeper relationship to the underground. “The earliest known drawings over 30,000 years old are found in caves,” he writes, evoking the Paleolithic paintings of the Chauvet Cave in France. “Humans have been drawn to caves for a very, very long time, and I am no exception.” Shelter, safety, adventure—we continue to look for them under the earth.
In addition to the mixed media paintings at EBK, Williams’s cave suite includes drawings, screenprints, dioramas, books, and photographs both plain and handcolored. He’s snapped thousands of images. His photos show frontiers of alternatively bulbous and jagged limestone, like melted wax and broken Christmas ornaments. Sometimes the outcroppings claw into the dark like Lynda Benglis’s oozing polyurethane Phantom (1971), another phosphorescent work. Radiantly, Williams documents light displays in show caves that illuminate rock fangs like fireworks. The light stains the stalagtites violet blue, hot magenta, sour apple: the view from the mouth of a popsicle-eating shark.
Without the photographs, the paintings stand strong alone as studies in color and negative space. When compared to the fantastic realities of these caves, they become meditations on how we distinguish shapes from shadows in unfamiliar landscapes—and what surfaces as our eyes adjust to the dark.
Williams lives and works in New Haven; see more of his work at www.livepaint.org.
Mark Williams | Paintings is on view April 14–26 , 2015 at EBK Gallery [small works], 218 Pearl Street, Hartford CT, www.ebkgallery.com.