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Issue 237

Are You the Butt of Bedwyr Williams’s Jokes?

At Phillida Reid, London, a series of elegant ink drawings prods at the art world’s social anxieties

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 22 MAY 23

There are two main satirical targets in the elegantly economical ink (and, more recently, iPad) drawings that Bedwyr Williams has been posting on his popular Instagram account since 2018, a number of which he’s transformed into lightbox works for his solo show, ‘Older Artist’, at Phillida Reid, London. The first are the self-regarding social tribes and types that populate the contemporary art world. (See, for example, the baggy-panted posers depicted in Quiet Art People Communicating via the Medium of Trouser, all works 2023.) The second is the influx of entitled and crashingly insensitive English second homeowners to his native Wales. (Here, they are skewered in an image of a pair of deck shoes, These Machines Kill Minority Languages, which, like all his drawings, is captioned with its pithy, pitiless title.) In each case, Williams homes in on particulars – precisely noted codes of dress, speech and behaviour – to make a more general observation. Broadly stated, this is that, at their worst, humans are proud and shallow animals, whose obliviousness to their own absurdity is matched only by how little they know, or care, about the pain of others and their own part in it.

A close up of a person wearing dark jeans with dark shoes.
Bedwyr Williams, David, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Phillida Reid, London; photograph: Ben Westoby

Much of the pleasure of comedy depends on recognition, and for anybody embedded in the art world, there are plenty of familiar – and satisfyingly awful – characters to laugh at in Williams’s video Untitled, which brings together dozens of his Instagram drawings in a doom-scrolling slideshow, set to a soundtrack of birdsong and rumbling traffic. Witness the ‘Jedi clothes museum director’ and a duo of ‘no-personality designers’, members of an unsmiling ‘downer collective’ and a grinning, shiny-eyed ‘new project prick’. A key motif in Williams’s drawings are pairs of clumpy black shoes worn beneath cropped, wide-leg slacks. This is his visual shorthand for art world group-think (to misquote George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), ‘imagine a three-eyelet Doc Marten stamping on a human face – forever’), and it’s perhaps instructive that, on my visit to his show, several gallery-goers were sporting this very uniform. Did they feel like they were being satirized, or is what Sigmund Freud termed ‘the narcissism of minor differences’ in his work Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) so powerful a force that they felt flatteringly in on, but not the butt of, the joke? Williams guards against such complacency in his (insider) audience by prodding at their social anxieties. Only the most self-confident art world denizen would fail to be haunted by his lightbox featuring the faces of two sneering hipsters titled Artists Who Everyone Says Are Lovely Don’t Like You.

Pale man with ginger hair staring down.
Bedwyr Williams, Rob, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Phillida Reid, London; photograph: Ben Westoby

Williams’s paintings – hung salon style, here – are less immediately funny than his drawings, yet they have a bleak humour that’s all their own. Peter and Rob depict dazed, middle-aged men standing against the white glare of a gallery wall, which appears to have leeched the bloom from their skin and the hope from their eyes. Are they examples of the ‘Older Artist’ evoked in the exhibition title, or even perhaps rebadged self-portraits? We might note that Williams himself is nearing the end of his fifth decade. If the men in these canvases are fading relics of a bygone creative age, then so is the renaissance-era wind instrument depicted in Serpent, whose ribbed, snake-like form is echoed in the vertebrae that climb up the back of the head of the bald, reptilian humanoid in Big Tension. Facing away from us – in shame, in disgust? – this mutant figure resembles the tiny, perverted imp in William Blake’s painting The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819–20). Is it the fate of Peter, Rob and their ilk to be identified as monsters and banished from art’s citadel? If so, what do we gain by this, and what do we lose?

Bedwyr Williams, Older Artist is on view at Phillida Reid, London until 27 May.

Main image: Bedwyr Williams, Older Artist, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Phillida Reid, London; photograph: Ben Westoby

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.