BY JONATHAN MCBURNIE
After months of bad timing and conflicting schedules, I finally got down to Sydney artist Phil Aston Williams’ Alexandria studio to see his work in the flesh, and have a chat about it. I first met Williams at the now-sadly-disappeared Peloton, an inner-city Sydney artist run space. Tall, handsome and gym-fit, Williams is an intimidating presence from afar, but his enthusiasm and willingness to talk quickly disarms any preconceptions of ‘cool Sydney’ one may have carried.
Williams’ enthusiasm is contagious, and one gets the distinct impression that he works hard, driven by a love of what he is doing. ‘I’m hooked on hybridity and dissolving or bridging different painterly elements, either technically in their production or through a sort of visual collage of imagery and motif. That’s the ongoing thread, currently I’m weaving gestures in a slightly Op art way and adding slightly cheeky representational snippets to them’.
The artist’s studio (which he admits he has tidied a little for my visit) is full of studies, works in progress and a few finished works, safely bubble-wrapped, awaiting exhibition. ‘I’ve also been trying to reconcile how we trust more in our imagined systems such as money and status than our animal-self reality. I love anything post-apocalyptic, zombie, survival etc, so there’s a series of paintings in development resolving a rift between human and nature’. Hence, Williams’ work does retain a distinctly science fiction element in their mish-mash aesthetic, though it isn’t so obvious as an alien or a robot.
Williams is also a frequent visitor to Berlin. ‘There is something magnetic about Berlin, I’ve visited there four times. It has an intense artistic, musical and no bullshit energy. I love the beauty and nature and the high standards we expect in Sydney but beyond the high maintenance, spoiled Sydney-sider I’m definitely at least half grunge, anarchist, Berlin raver’.
Williams’ work is beautiful to look at, but retains a fun, hyperactive aesthetic not unlike cartoons. ‘Animation definitely forged some sort of magical belief into my growing mind. My dreams are much like cartoons except when I have been working a really long time on a representational painting and then they are like full on close up oil painting colour separations and forms but with a story line’.
The animated, psychedelic aspects of Williams’ paintings frequently explode into brazenly graphic explosions of colour and form, but there is an ever-present representational anchor which grounds the work, at least partially, within some form of reality, however surreal and dreamscapey. ‘Animation has become so sophisticated visually and in its ability to carry really complex ideas through what most people ignore as childish or at best stoner stimulation. For sure animation is probably the highest form of artistic collaboration. A lot of the graphic element to my work is also a kind of way of rejecting the machismo and brushstroke idolatry of abstract expressionism’.
A total child of the eighties, Williams cites cartoons as a formative, and ongoing, influence (‘I thought The Mysterious Cities of Gold was a documentary as a kid’), and rates recent series Neon Genesis Evangelion, Archer, Adventure Time alongside seminal classics like Astroboy and Masters of the Universe. A heady brew, to be sure. ‘Lucy Daughter of the Devil is bound to come back into fashion – early 2000’s humour – and you should watch Chozen, the world’s first animated gay white rapper, a guilty pleasure. Yeah I guess you could say I watch quite a bit of animation’, Williams admits.
Improvisation and intuition play an important part in Williams’ studio. Cannibalising various marks and gestures for reintegration into other paintings through collage is a fascinating process that appears within dozens of his works in the studio. Williams admits a level of tinkering involved in the way he works, ‘I’d probably be way more productive if I had the ability to plan properly but every painting is really a kind of problem solving, I guess that’s where the art is for me’.
Inevitably, when discussing art, science fiction and animation, the post-apocalypse comes up, and I ask Williams what he would grab and take with him if he had to leave the studio real quick, and his response has clearly been considered before. ‘I read a great theory that pointed out we are in essence hunter gatherers who, rather than invented farming, were actually ourselves domesticated by wheat, rice and corn. Most of our evolution happened in this hunter gatherer kind of prehistory time that we don’t know much about. Our brains probably have all sorts of interesting survival triggers that now only get used to day dream. I was pick-pocketed in Rotterdam while travelling and something clicked inside me, I worked out who the thief was and actually stole my wallet back before even realising what I’d done. It was pretty crazy … The one thing not to forget in your doomsday prepping I reckon would be good whiskey. It’s a pain killer, flammable and bound to make you the most popular person in survivor camp’. Like his studio work, Williams’ idea is tempting, well considered and surprising.