Dunham: There’s a term that’s too common in art writing now, Ab-Ex, which is short for abstract expressionism, and is completely inadequate. There’s nothing more irritating than when people use it when what they want to say is something about large-scale gestural painting, but it also reveals a real truth about the way our minds work. In the history of painting, there is an erosion of nuance. Things just get dumbed down to these buzz terms and I actually think Michael’s dribbling paint around has virtually nothing to do with Pollock in any real way. I’m not saying that as a criticism — quite the opposite.
Thinking about the canon, has the recent surge of interest in expanding art away from the strictly white, heterosexual and male changed the way you think about your work or how you work?
Williams: I think not that long ago in my life I was probably able to tell myself… well, I don’t know what I told myself. I certainly didn’t tell myself that I was part of some very specific socioeconomic or ethnic category. I thought of my condition as much more general. Now, it’s not impossible to think that way anymore. There’s a big reset going on, all extremely necessary and appropriate. Discomfort in self-recognition is a part of that process.
Dunham: I think part of the privilege of being white is this idea that we saw our perspective as whole. You’re thinking that you’re making art about universal truths about being a human being or something, but we’re learning that it is not true or at least not true in the way we told ourselves. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Michael’s work that framed it as being about a white guy who grew up in Rhode Island. Even though of course it is about that just as much as anyone else’s work is about their life. But sometimes it’s more obviously like that painting I’ve always liked so much, the one with the bald artist from the back.
Williams: Yeah, “Morning Zoo.”
Dunham: It shows the artist with his ass crack out looking into a studio. It is all right there. Here is this vaguely absurd looking white person alone doing this quote unquote “important stuff” and maybe there is a humor and a truth to that image.
Williams: The content of my paintings is dictated by the content of my own psyche, so I wonder if I would still have the impulse to decorate and to make things if I felt settled. I like having things around that disturb or disrupt my normal state of my mind. Things that trigger me to think in a different way make a space active. In the end, I’m trying to make objects like this. I’m creating the things I want to see.
Dunham: I agree. I don’t want to make things that I don’t want to look at. I don’t like looking at people with gunshot wounds or their heads chopped off or lots of things that one sees on television or in films. In this day and age, I find the idea that a painting could actually be shockingly absurd given what we’re dealing with on a daily basis. Paintings are provocative to think about in the same way that certain philosophical or scientific ideas are. They provide us the lens for looking at what is really happening.