Sue Williams at 303 Gallery

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A wonderful thing happened on the way to the millennium. Painting, after years of taking a beating at the hands of art Jacobins and assorted ideologues, returned with renewed gusto to the challenge of representing the times. Saying hello to new developments like the computer and goodbye to old schisms like that between representation and abstraction, a new generation of artists was forced, in the absence of available field maps, to create the country of painting anew.

While some naturally gravitated toward painting abstract arrangements, a smaller number turned toward the human figure, rendered often in the stylized camouflage of comics. Yet a third group worked its way in the direction of a hybrid entity, neither figure nor abstract gesture, arriving at a mutant painting genre that confounds revolutionists and conservatives alike: content-driven abstraction.

Looking to the successful examples of slightly older abstract artists like Terry Winters and David Reed, who proceed largely from impure, mediated experiences (like their interest in science and the influence of cinema), younger painters flouted irrelevant orthodoxies and loaded their abstract wagons full of that old Greenbergian bugaboo: subject matter. Of these, a few naturally began making one thing and ended up, years later, doing another. This sort of migration begot, among others, the wildly variegated work of Ingrid Calame, Fabian Marcaccio, Matthew Ritchie, Bruce Pearson and Alex Ross. Artists who make putative abstractions, these painters learned to skirt old pictorial conventions in part by making new demands on meaning. In the process, they learned they could achieve grand formal effects with the benefits of real-world content?in plainer language, have their cake and eat it too.

Sue Williams, for one, began her career with images like this one: a painting of a woman's face is viciously attacked by an army of penises. Above the drawing a line of scrawled text reads, "Try to be more accommodating." Painted at the height of the furor for political art, it announced Williams as coreligionist with angry feminists like Karen Finley and hortatory multiculturalists like William Pope .L. Partly autobiographical (she was once a battered woman) and sometimes outrageously funny, her work and its repeated confrontations swept her into three consecutive, unregenerately ideological Whitney Biennials (in one, most notoriously, she contributed a pool of plastic vomit). "Whiny, self-indulgent victim art," one critic called it. Whatever it was, her crude, rude stick figures were, as far as painting goes, not much to look at.

Then a stunning transformation took place. Williams moved gradually away from the literary sarcasm and cartoony images of spousal abuse, degradation and violence that had made her something of a celebrity in the art world and began to concentrate on the one thing she had not been taught in graduate school: painting. Slowly at first, and then more boldly, Williams applied herself to the lessons of line, color and composition. Learning as she went along at an extraordinary rate, she eventually dropped the text, elongated her wristy line, made indeterminate her copulating figures, developed an elegant yet vibrant sense of color and turned into the last thing anyone would have ever expected: a sophisticated painter of formalist-looking abstractions.

As New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron put it, "both detractors and supporters" of Williams' work were left "somewhat at a loss for explanation" regarding her metamorphosis. "People who are not into painting and who liked my early stuff thought I was crazy," Williams told Times critic Michael Kimmelman. "They pigeonholed me: you know, I was a compulsive woman, a naive artist. They didn't want me to be something else. Like I couldn't think for myself. It was condescending."

Williams, a poster child for De Kooning's famously contrarian phrase, "If you take the attitude that it is not possible to do something, you have to prove it by doing it," spent the last decade overturning comfortable expectations about her work. Pegged once as a bad-girl artist, she has created a different, much larger role for herself on the art world stage. Where her work once largely depended on its content for impact, it now elides similar material into a rich painting style that melds medium and message seamlessly. Rather than proceed as an artist whose art is inseparable from an art-political agenda, she taught herself to make her paintings and their subject matter specific not only to herself but to the act of painting.

Her most recent exhibition at Chelsea's 303 Gallery charts yet another step in her development into a genuinely gifted and graceful artist. Her accretions of small colorful manipulations into large all-over canvases have given way to thick swooping lines of paint. Her insidiously curvy depictions of penises, pudenda, legs and the orifices they betray have evolved into more minimal, powerful suggestions of sexual raucousness laid like time bombs behind a screen of elegant painterly calm. Set against burnished white surfaces the artist sands down to the look of rubberized plaster, Williams deploys a reduced number of rope-thick lines in an equally reduced but vibrant palette of pastel and neon colors.

In this case, to quote Frank Stella, less is certainly more. The point, as far as the artist is concerned, is to be "bold but also minimal." "I especially want to see pictures," Williams has said, "that show me how simple an image can be." The words of a mature artist, they square with her self-taught confidence in an age-old, tricky medium that has recently regained some lost ground. Still, both the four large-scale canvases and six drawings on acetate on view in her current exhibition continue to reflect the fevered body consciousness that has powered Williams' art from the start.

One drawing, for example, features a polka-dotted shirt with udders, hovering sphincters and a clearly delineated vagina dentata. Another, drawn on transparent vellum and lain over a sheet of pink paper, is titled plainly Womanly with Tufts and describes a hairy orifice that is part spider, part Venus flytrap. On the other hand a painting like Re-uptake Inhibitors, a gorgeous tangle of snaking lines in pink, mauve and hot pink, reduces the sexual associations of the show's drawings yet still manages to suggest various psychotherapeutic sessions of Freudian subtexts lying in wait.

Of course, knowing Williams' previous work brings the suggestion of sexuality to the table in the same way that seeing Taxi Driver brings a certain baggage to Robert De Niro films. Yet we are also meant to see helmet-headed penises where Williams deliberately rounds off the tips of her thick lines, and a schematically open vagina among the pastel colored tendrils of the painting Impatient Symmetry. The rebarbative content is still there; the formal appearance of her paintings, rather than mute it, fashions for her subject matter a thin, tight-fitting glove. The real action, as it were, exists in the slippages between the two.

Sue Williams, through May 18 at 303 Gallery, 525 W. 22nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 255-1121.

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