There are two seemingly contradictory ways to discuss the new art exhibition by local sculptor and painter Fletcher Williams III. In one sense, the exhibition is a continuation of his previous work, further exploring the social issues facing Charleston's black community. The materials and mediums are similarly a continuation — sculptures and relief work utilizing reclaimed wood, automotive paint, and various building materials.
But in another sense, this new exhibition, entitled City Block, is filled with firsts for Williams.
"I think I was more of a spectator to my own work in previous shows," says Williams, "but now there's much more of my personality and my perspective being exposed in this exhibition."
Williams unabashedly considers this his most personal exhibition to date. "What I wanted to do less in this show is speak for somebody else," says Williams. "I think now I've gotten a little closer to what my relationship is with a lot of the symbols I have presented."
Williams grew up in the Lowcountry, born and raised in North Charleston. He graduated from Charleston County School of the Arts in 2005 and continued his art education at Trident and College of Charleston before transferring to the prestigious Cooper Union in New York City. But even while in New York, he was still making art about the South. "My subject matter is certainly rooted in Charleston," says Williams.
He moved back to Charleston in 2013 and since his return his work has become much more focused on exploring the social injustices inflicting the local African-American community.
His exhibitions in Charleston have addressed issues such as gun violence and housing inequities that have become readily apparent in the Holy City. "I think the works I did in the last two exhibitions are important but my voice wasn't in there," says Williams. "I think I spoke to a lot of issues here in the city, but no one would know my relationship with those subjects from looking at that work."
In City Block, Williams aims to accentuate that relationship, bringing the viewer into his personal experiences. "I think what I've illuminated in this exhibition is how I see people interact with black culture [in Charleston]," says Williams. "It's basically one big illustration of my experiences throughout the city."
For example, one of the pieces appearing in Williams's show, "Vessel No. 1," is a sculpture made with painted wood, sweetgrass, and handwoven palmetto roses.
You can't live in Charleston without experiencing religion in one form or another, so crosses found their way into Williams's work. "It will kind of reveal my relationship with religion or my disassociation with the church despite being an African American in the South where it's a very big part of the culture in general."
As with his previous works, Williams will utilize automotive paint and metal flake. "I'm obsessed with the big cars, the shiny paint jobs, the big rims, the loud music. So kind of pushing those motifs forward in a way that's kind of in your face but also questions the viewer's relationship with those symbols."
As for the metal flake, "Metal flake you don't really see here," says Williams. "That's more a West coast thing but I've used it more like hyperbole, to exaggerate the flashiness or the opulence of it all."
In past exhibitions, Williams has been meticulous in plotting out the entire show, sketching nearly every piece he's going to create ahead of time and dissecting how they will all work together in the space. But for City Block, Williams let his work evolve and transform during the creation process. "When I began this work, I didn't have these results in mind," he says. "The work just happened naturally so probably 90 percent of this work changed [throughout the process]."
Another first for Williams, he's collaborating with a musician on this exhibition. Williams's childhood friend, Philip Lipton, is a classically trained clarinetist who creates vivid soundscapes that he describes as "geometric minimalism." "He's very experimental, despite being classically trained," says Williams. "I thought it'd be interesting to kind of activate my work with his music for just a completely new experience."
Williams and Lipton have wanted to collaborate for some time. Partnerships between musicians and visual artists are few and far between in the Lowcountry, and Williams saw City Block as an opportunity to create something rarely seen. "I think when you tie in something completely disconnected to this work it's going to create another layer of experience for the viewer," says Williams. "My work is so influenced by hip-hop and urban culture so it will be interesting to see someone who is influenced by classical music, and see how those merge."