William Williams III

Honolulu, O‘ahu
Media: Painting and drawing

I took my first picture of a flattened bird in 2006. I was drawn to the un-birdness visually and yet still it was obviously a bird. There was then this abject materialism of the innards of the animal. But knowing still that it was more than the insides. So I walked a lot around town, and started photographing the birds with my cellphone as I came across them.

After I finished my MFA I started making small paintings from a couple of these photographs. These were Bird No. 1 and Bird No. 2. I recognized that the feathers were so detailed and such a mess that these paintings of dead birds were going to be incredibly tedious. So I decided that I would make them much larger, and make a series of three larger-than-life dead birds. These became Birds Nos. 3 to 6. They were difficult because I had to rely on my skills as a realist, which were always rather technical than artistic, using projection to trace a composition on the canvas and then painting from a laser print of a reference photo. The first three large bird paintings had dark backgrounds to them. And while they were beautiful and in stark contrast to the ground, they were also monumentally serious or morose. They had this aura of a dark cloud, and while death can be very serious—and they were definitely about death—I didn’t like how the seriousness dominated the “feel” of the painting, and kept the viewer away from the abstract, conceptual, and formal aspects of the work. So after some reflection on what the birds meant, I decided to try something. I then painted Bird No. 4 that hot chartreuse that techno-gadget companies like to use so much. I did this because I knew while I was making a statement about death, I was also examining indifference. And for myself I see one of the key factors in making people increasingly indifferent today are the iPod and smart phone phenomena. So then, being very pleased with the outcome of the green background of Bird No. 4, I started picking colors for the others, which were consciously commercial spectra of one hue. For instance, Bird No. 3 has an American Spirits blue, and Bird No. 5 uses that hot orange/yellow that is everywhere when spring and summer come around, and Bird No. 6 has the purple/hot pink that is T-mobile and Barbie. This commercial background is the negative space which then transforms my rendering of the bird from just a kind of document of a dead bird to a painting for me.       

The bird itself symbolizes everything we associate with birds: freedom, dreams, flight, foretelling, peace. These positive symbolic meanings are confronted with their opposites: reality, ground, death, violence, indifference. The actual birds are meaningless collateral death/damage, a result of driving cars from place to place. My goal, through my documentation and painting, is to transform this violence into reverence and reflection and abstract beauty, visually and conceptually.

Roman auspices (where we get the word auspicious) predicted the future by observing the flight of birds. But the Romans also practiced extispicy—the viewing of entrails of a sacrificed poultry bird. In a poetic way I’m doing something similar. Because there is something about our indifference to this death that resonates with our attitudes not just to death in general, but meaningless unintentional death of humans, of whole populations. This resonance of our growing indifference of our actions and consequences, as if they were some unstoppable machine and we are just passengers and no one is driving, is why I’m developing this work. Because unlike other topics I've researched, this one is very emotional. If viewers want to ignore the death of the bird, then even that says something that should not be inwardly ignored. So in this way the birds are a sort of memento-mori, a remember you die.

The other reason I’m drawn to the birds is there is an abject and abstract beauty about the birds. Beauty is a loaded word. For me beauty is a kind of stupor, a state when the brain gets overwhelmed with an aesthetic phenomenon. The way the very ordered feathers of a living bird get pushed and malformed to chaotic disarray in death is such a powerful visual metaphor of what life is about. And the “artist” part of me wants to make death beautiful. Because we are taught to see the horror and the loss in death and never see the relief or the opportunity that death affords us, we live obsessed with terror and fear of own death, which we cannot avoid. And so we have a culture that is on one hand sanitized of death and on the other also obsessed with it—it's avoidance through excessive security, patriot act, loss of habeus corpus, for example.

Recipient of the Reuben Tam Award for Painting and the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts Recognition Award