Atlanta artist William Downs’ surreal quick-drawing animation Exploring a New Adventure almost dares your eyes to deceive you. The first piece in this series of three, part of Flux Projects’ Virtual Art Series, offers a parade of fantastic (or unsettling) creations seemingly forging themselves into existence in 80 seconds.
The outlines of faces, hands, arms and torso morph into scenes of transformation. Three human shapes merge and twist sideways. A barrage of eyes, like an unblinking storm, consumes a face with an eerie smile.
Viewed within the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, these moving pictures, curated by storyteller, documentarian, writer and cultural producer Floyd Hall (also an ArtsATL contributor), could be interpreted as an expression of the pandemic wreaking havoc on our sense of normalcy, forcing a collective shift in how we orient ourselves amid others.
“There’s a depth and openness to William Downs’ work that challenges the viewer’s notions of reality and personal assumptions,” Hall said in a statement. “You bring your own ideas to the work, and then experience the space to question those ideas.”
The ink-wash animation is also just what its title indicates: a new stretch exercise for the artist himself, marking his first official foray into animation.
ArtsATL recently caught up with Downs — who’s in his s40s, has an M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and has exhibited in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh — to talk about Flux Projects’ process, getting out of his artistic comfort zone and what’s giving him hope in 2020.
ArtsATL: Who’s your favorite animator?
William Downs: [South African artist] William Kentridge. He’s the champion, in my opinion.
ArtsATL: What’s your artistic process like? What materials do you use and how do you choose a direction?
Downs: The beginning starts with a gesture. That’s just kind of a warm-up process of trying to find the figure form. The landscape comes second, so I think about the landscape and how it’s going to hold the figure. From there, I think about whatever songs are on the radio, or what I’ve read, and that kind of fuels the tank a little bit. The medium I choose is ink wash. That process is so hard to do, and that’s why I do it. I love the look of the black and white together with the wash.
ArtsATL: Can you tell us more about the meaning behind the black and white, how you landed on it and what it means to you?
Downs: That happened in a conversation with my father about five years ago. I needed to figure out a way to reinvent my work, to find the next chapter. He said, “Why not do black and white?” It hit me like a bag of bricks. My work had been so colorful, vibrant and moody. I feel like humans gravitate toward color because the responsibility has already been filled in for them. I wanted to remove that — where you had to make your feelings up. I think about how musicians operate. There are lots of sounds and colors as a band, but when it’s a soloist, it’s stripped down and raw. That’s the look that I want right now.
ArtsATL: We’re in the midst of extraordinarily challenging times, especially for artists. What gives you hope these days?
Downs: The hope is to have learned from this moment of self-reflection and institutional reflection. Hopefully, artists will come back fresh and renewed, and galleries and museums will reinvent themselves. I also think it’s giving me a lot of time and patience. And I’ve been learning to embrace technology, which I’ve rejected in the past because I’ve been on the go, giving lectures, doing workshops or working on one of my installations.
ArtsATL: In a 2018 interview, you said that you frequently listen to music while you work. What artists or songs are in your rotation right now?
Downs: Prince. Merle Haggard. Mavis Staples. Cyndi Lauper. I love narrative artists. Tyler, the Creator, is one of my heroes right now. He and Frank Ocean. They’ve been narrating in the new work a lot. The Cure has been anchoring me lately, too, because of the melancholy, the moodiness and the kind of weirdness and quirkiness of the lyrics and the distinct sound. I think about how the guitar clangs when I go into the studio and start drawing my lines. That’s how I curate my days. When I’m ready to tear everything up, I’ll put on Parliament, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. I’m secretly obsessed with trying to be a DJ.
ArtsATL: If you could meet any two artists, living or dead, who would they be?
Downs: I think [German sculptor and performance artist] Joseph Beuys, because he was this mystical philosopher and spiritual weirdo who wore a lot of different hats in the art world, in philosophy, teaching, exploration. I love him because he was so complicated, and I don’t think he gets his day in the sunshine enough.
The second person I feel like I have to choose is [Canadian-American painter and printmaker] Philip Guston. So, there’s two white men, but that’s OK! (He laughs.) Philip was such an intense human. He showed with the same gallery for 40 years. He taught in the education system for 25 years. He made drawings and paintings every day all his life until he passed away. So, I think his discipline, focus, rigor and obsession with his work are why I love him and would love to meet with him and talk about that. He helped me to think about my voice.
ArtsATL: What do you hope people walk away with when they see your series? What conversations do you hope this inspires?
Downs: I want people to go, “OK, William Downs is not afraid of anything.”
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