Peter Williams, Barcelona, 2004. Oil on canvas.

The white walls and verticality of this composition make the space feel claustrophobic and the narrative chilling. The white figure on the left is dressed in all white with a button-up shirt or lab coat to match the room. This along with the position he takes, wrapping his arm around the black figure and holding a glass of water, suggests his role as a caregiver or doctor. His inhumanity, however, is reflected in his bloodshot eyes, pork nose, and lack of mouth, making his actions feel ominous as the sedated man on the right falls helplessly. This scene is Williams’ personal adaption of Francisco de Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta. This allusion confirms that the patient in Barcelona is in fact the artist himself. In college, Williams spent many months in a hospital recovering from a car crash, an event that changed the course of his life tremendously.

Viewers of Barcelona are also forced to wonder: what is the relationship between these two figures? The dynamic between them is alarming, but Peter Williams’ execution of this scene clearly demonstrates his social awareness.  A clue to this is the symbolic use of the pop culture icon Mickey Mouse that is repeated throughout the painting. The mouse ears found in Barcelona are a common motif in Williams’ paintings. They refer to the beloved mouse character’s roots in the minstrel tradition– a form of entertainment that mocked African Americans.  This and the creation of surreal characters are what make his artistic style unique and worth contemplating. The complexities that are interwoven into this narrative are not unusual for Williams.  His paintings more often than not tackle topics of race, society, and pop culture, all while making strong references to history.

From a young age, Williams’ artistic spirit had been encouraged by his art instructors and his mother. He earned a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and an MFA from the Maryland Institute of Arts. Williams came to Detroit in 1987, to teach at Wayne State University, and stayed for 17 years. Detroit proved to be both a challenging and rewarding experience for him, as he felt that the city allowed his artwork to have a “vocal political theme or ideology.” In Detroit, Williams’ social and self-consciousness flourished, and it is reflected in his work. Not surprising, Williams’ artwork has been featured at notable venues such as the Woodstock Music Festival, the Whitney Biennial in New York City (2002), and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to his painting, Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead (1995), another poignant artwork that comments on racism in modern day America. In regards to his art, Williams writes, “I create a stable of characters and they introduce me to moments in the work and sometimes that moment creates different visual and narrative paths for me to follow.” In 2004, Williams was awarded a grant from the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation, Barcelona being one of the paintings he submitted to exemplify his artistic and critical skills.

Written by Danielle Cervera Bidigare