Auras and totems

Carl Williams celebrates the ordinary in Coded Memories

Atlanta-based artist Carl Williams is like a psychic who divines inner light by reading people's auras. Williams creates portraits of ordinary people who radiate the most amazing rings of juicy color and shimmering good juju.

Halos of energy and hue explode from the head of one black-and-white photograph of a schoolmarmish lady wearing frumpy glasses. Surrounded by coronas of hot pink and kelly green, this middle-aged woman is canonized into one of Williams' quotidian icons in his solo exhibition Coded Memories.

Williams' men, women and children are just ordinary folk elevated to the status that portraiture traditionally grants its subjects as people worth caring about. But Williams' objective is clearly deeper than any old portrait painter's mission. His work on display at the Hammonds House Galleries has a more political objective, seeking to venerate the ordinary African-Americans who perhaps haven't yet had their moment in the glittering, colorful limelight that Williams' everyday shrines provide.

Williams manages to elevate his ordinary subjects without sugarcoating their flaws. He even honors that spanking-prone schoolmarm in his mixed media work titled "Boy, Go Get A Switch, So I Can Beat Cho A**!" which comes embellished with a hickory switch adhered to the artwork.

That folksy vernacular can push Williams' work onto the kitschy side of the street. But it's clear, despite such homespun traps, that Williams has found a wellspring of potential in his juxtaposition of black-and-white, hand-tinted photographs with the wild-style checkerboard and sunbeam colors that surround them. In the particularly rich character study "What Was the Number?" you can almost hear the power balls turning and the squeal of children underfoot. A young woman in curlers looks pensive as signs of Lotto fever swirl all around her. Lucky numbers, lottery tickets, chess, checkerboards and undulating forms that flow like time's own Waits-For-No-One river form a crazy-quilt subtext of chance and fate in Williams' work.

There's almost a Pedro Almodovar leitmotif going on in Williams' small sampling of portraits of desperate women. "I Wonder Where Johnny At?" continues that narrative strain. A woman with a fierce overbite and mismatched clothes clutches a broom in her hands, though her faraway gaze and her distracted cleaning carry a hint of desperation and abandonment.

As good as he is at telling individual stories with fairly terse means, Williams also exhibits some promising ability for social critique, as in a basketball backboard fashioned from wood and a plastic milk crate for a net in "Ghetto Goals." The piece continues the impression of scrappy improvisation and down-home ingenuity that Williams finds in a culture that has crafted woebegone heartache into blues music. And the piece perhaps also carries a hint of critique of life goals that come in the limited day-dreamy form of sports. That same Conrad Atkinson-style commentary emerges in Williams' use of black and white chess pieces on a board whose playing field is composed of dollar bills and maps, implying the struggle for capital and territory. The chessboard pattern, used literally here, also underscores yet again the idea of games and fate conveyed beneath the surface in so much of Williams' other work.

Mixed in with his social commentary and emotionally loaded portraits are far less successful sculptures that move away from these character studies. They suggest Williams doodling with his favorite punchy colors and fate-laden forms in ways that don't forward the sense of visual narrative he has established in other works.

"Untitled Sculpture" is typical. It is untitled because, as the name hints, the real focus eludes Williams. In this totem-like sculpture with wheel-of-fortune markings and a puffy red heart at its center, Williams seems to be commenting on the caprice of where our hearts and affections will stick. "Landscape" is coherent in the sense that it displays Williams' preference for regal gold and celestial, timeless totems, such as its smiling sun radiating waves of color, but it only recasts these interests rather than moving the story forward.

What Williams often seems after is capturing a mood, a sense of a community in his gold-leaf beer bottles or ornamental "For Rent" signs. But beyond merely commemorating some of the icons of urban black life, you yearn for Williams to say something specific about that life and to move beyond memorializing and enshrining, to push toward some of the social commentary other work indicates.