Uppity Negress, 2017. Site-specific installation at The Arts Club of Chicago. Photo Credit: Michael Sullivan
AMANDA WILLIAMS explores the intersection of color,
line and material with social, political and cultural meanings inherent
in architecture and urban environments. For her well-known project Color(ed) Theory, she painted eight houses slated for demolition on Chicago's South Side in
a palette derived from African American consumer culture. Her work
hinges on this cultural specificity while simultaneously addressing the
broader themes of impermanence, transformation and healing, as they are
sited in the human-built environment. Amanda earned her Bachelor of
Architecture with an Emphasis in Fine Art at Cornell University in 1997.
Her numerous awards include a 3Arts Award (2014), a Joyce Foundation
scholarship (2013), and an Excellence in Teaching Award (2015), for her
work at Illinois Institute of Technology, College of Architecture.
Amanda was named Newcity’s 2016 Designer of the Moment, was a 2016 Efroymson Fellow and has been tapped to be part of the team working on the exhibition spaces at the Obama Presidential Center. Uppity Negress, a site-specific installation for The Arts Club Garden
Projects (Chicago), is on view through
September 2017. Her solo show Chicago Works: Amanda Williams
just opened and is currently on view at The Museum of Contemporary Art
through December 31, 2017. Amanda lives and works in Chicago.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Uppity Negress, a site-specific installation for The Arts Club Garden Projects (Chicago), just opened in June and will be on view through September 2017. Tell us about this new work. What about the title and form of the “fence” in relation to the site?
Amanda Williams: I am so excited by this new body of work and how it has expanded the ways in which I’m continually contemplating questions of space, race and color. The title has tangential beginnings related to sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who was an early exhibitor at the Arts Club, as well as a portion of a chapter from author, Natalie Moore’s book, The South Side. I am fascinated by the way the Arts Club garden operates as neither completely public or private. How could I use this spatial condition to consider questions of authority and access, particularly as it relates to the black female body in public space. By venturing “out of line,” the fence creates a disorienting space that allows occupants to experience this liminal social condition. The pickets of the fence disperse and eventually lead to a large banner displaying the arrest transcript of Sandra Bland interspersed with excerpts from a commencement speech given by former First Lady, Michelle Obama. The mashup charts an alternate narrative to the potential of getting out of line.
Uppity Negress, 2017. Site-specific installation at The Arts Club of Chicago. Photo Credit: Michael Sullivan
OPP: Tell us a bit about the process of painting the abandoned houses marked for demolition in your project Color(ed) Theory.
Is it a guerrilla act or a permitted one? Who are your artist
assistants? Compare painting the first house in the series to painting
the last one.
AW: I chose properties that were at the end of their life cycle and use the project as a way to ask questions about how and when we value architecture. Because of the temporal nature of the structures and the project, I enlisted the help of fellow artists friends and family members who wanted to support my artistic practice and also understood the stakes in working under such conditions. They were collaborators in the truest sense.
My husband Jason Burns was probably the most prolific painter. He also cleared the overgrown weeds, bushes and grass. I didn’t know what to expect when I started. The idea was to load up as much paint as would fit in our truck , or that I had the budget for, go out at daybreak and paint until someone challenged us or until we ran out of paint. By the final house, the project had gained the attention of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and had been folded in as a part of their programming. We went from about 9 people helping to 70. It meant a lot of tiny brushes. It was a good moment to terminate the project, before it turned into something else with external agendas.
Newport 100/Loose Squares, 2015 (Overall), 2015
How do the painted houses operate in their natural environments? What
kinds of responses have you heard from people who live around them? How
many are still standing?
AW: Approximately half are still standing. The responses and reactions to the houses are as varied as the houses themselves. Some neighbors don’t like the project at all and think it exacerbates the issues that I’m attempting to call attention to. Many residents near the Currency Exchange and Safe Passage Houses find the color offensive. Some neighbors have described them as odd or thought provoking, while other neighbors have become friends of mine, and we’ve developed relationships that extend beyond the project’s initial intentions.
I think its important to emphasize that it’s fundamentally flawed to imagine homogeneity with words like “community” or “black people,” etc. We are often treated (and discriminated against) as a monolithic group, so its great to have a project that is not black or white, but gray.
Perhaps one of the most unique reactions came from photographer/artist, and Englewood resident Tonika Johnson. She included one of the painted houses as a backdrop to a photo composition she created for a billboard series, Englewood Rising, that offers positive images of everyday black life as a counter narrative to what we hear on the news or see tweeted by uninformed nationally elected officials. It is exciting to have my project interwoven into other local artists’ efforts to raise awareness and change the conversation. The landscapes feel more pronounced when you watch nature reclaim these voided lots.
Color(ed) Theory, Chicago Architectural Biennal, 2015. Photo Credit: Steven Hall
OPP: Most viewers—myself included—have only encountered Color(ed) Theory
in the form of photography. What do the photographs do that the actual
painted houses can’t. And how have the different display iterations of
these photographs changed over the life of the project?
AW: The photographs do a few things. They allow the project to be read as an aggregate, you can never physically occupy or absorb them as a singular spatial body. The photographs also contextualize the houses in relation to one another. They also make the context, namely the general isolation of the structures as important to the visual story as the houses themselves. Lastly, they freeze an ephemeral moment. While this allows the project to be widely shared, I’m still not sure this is a completely desirable strategy for a project that was intentionally temporal.
Pink Oil Moisturizer (Winter; Overall), 2014.
OPP: As I was researching your work, I became aware of just how much sudden attention your work has received since the first-ever Chicago Architecture Biennial
in 2015. So you’ve done a ton a interviews and received a lot of press
over the last couple of years. Is there anything about your work that
you don’t feel gets proper attention? What gets overlooked?
AW: The social nature of the Color(ed) Theory project overshadows a parallel thread about this as a project that is attempting to help inform my painting practice and a desire for a better formal understanding of color. There is also a levity that gets overshadowed by many. I’m always thrilled when someone laughs or smiles after reading a title of a piece, or has an ‘ah-ha’ moment related to a personal connection to the content.
OPP: It’s nice to hear you say that because I love the way the color itself both challenges and lives in harmony with the surrounding environment. It asserts itself, dominates the landscape and then just becomes another part of that space. What colors are you thinking about now?
AW: My Chicago Works exhibition at the MCA, curated by Grace Deveney, has afforded me an amazing opportunity to produce an almost entirely new body of work that contemplates several themes that emerged as a result of the response to Color(ed) Theory. Some of the narratives you’ll see emerging include gold as a signifier for social, cultural and political value associated with land use and ownership, as well as deep material explorations of salvaged building material. It has been really wonderful to continue to think through these fundamental questions in a variety of formats and media. This exploration of gold will also move beyond the MCA walls in a companion project funded by my Efroymson Fellowship, in which Golden Brick Roads will be embedded along short cuts (desire paths) in vacant lots on the City's south and near west side.
A Way, Away (Listen While I Say)—Translating Phase, 2017. Collaboration with Andres L. Hernandez. Photo Credit: Michael Thomas
OPP: Are these Gold Brick Roads connected to A Way, Away (Listen While I Say), your collaboration with Andres L. Hernandez in Saint Louis? This project applies five transformation actions—marking, subtracting, translating, shaping and healing—to 3721 Washington Boulevard,
which was slated for demolition. Will you use some of the salvage
bricks for the brick roads, and are those bricks also the bricks in your
The gold leafed bricks in Chicago share some themes with the gold
painted bricks salvaged in St. Louis, and in hindsight will
inevitably all be part of my gold color phase—I also had a Peanut
Butter and Jelly phase in the 3rd grade—but they are intentionally not
the same actual bricks. For A Way, Away, it was important to the
premise of the project that the St. Louis bricks STAY in the St. Louis
area and contribute to a new life cycle for that place. The four
projects that were selected all share concepts of healing and legacy;
either material or social/cultural. Andres and I recently participated
in a day long charrette with the four organizations leading the
projects. We have found that these formal transformations of the
material also serve as metaphors and platforms for dialog about personal
healing and transformation.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her solo show Sacred Secular open on August 11, 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.