‘You know how you get so frustrated with, like, wars and stuff?” the artist Sue Williams asks with sweet midwestern informality. (She’s from the suburbs of Chicago, but her delivery is pure Fargo you-betcha.) “I wanted to put something in my art that was related to all this stuff going on in the world that I was so passionate about in my thinking and my activities. Why isn’t this all connected—you know?”
Williams is standing in front of War of the Testicles, an immense painting—74 by 82 inches—covered with sparring clusters of biomorphic shapes resembling intestines, arteries, and, yes, gonads. The animated organs—carefully rendered in bright cartoon colors, as if Ren and Stimpy’s insides had spilled onto a battlefield—are both tragic and playful, absurd and literal. The canvas all but fills her studio, which is on the garden level of the Park Slope brownstone she shares with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. She’s been working on the painting for two months, all day, every day, focusing and refining the details: “I’ve been getting bogged down with so much tininess.” Assuming they can get it out the front door, War of the Testicles will soon travel to 303 Gallery, which is hosting “Al-Qaeda Is the CIA,” a twenty-year retrospective of Williams’s work, curated by the artist Nate Lowman.
The antiwar sentiment might be new, but Williams has always been explicit. When she moved from Chicago to New York in 1981, personal struggles, rather than the overtly political, inspired the bulk of her paintings, many of which dealt with sexual and domestic abuse in unprecedented ways. The early nineties wasn’t a banner decade for female artists; few emerged and even fewer did so with Williams’s visual gusto. Her paintings could be grotesque and shocking (with cartoonish figures partaking in beyond-X-rated activities), but also funny—the artistic equivalent of a Sarah Silverman joke. The 1992 piece Irresistible, for example, is a rubber sculpture of a nude, battered woman covered in phrases like “Look what you made me do”; drawings from that period often depict sadomasochism taken too far. She was decried as a man-hater by some and celebrated as an advocate for battered women by others. “It was coming from personal stuff,” says Williams, who was in several abusive relationships before meeting her husband. “Coming out of it, I was angry and wanting to share. People were like, ‘Why are you talking about this? Why are you portraying women as victims?’ If someone’s assaulting you, then they’re assaulting you. It’s not a shameful thing.”
For the retrospective—the most comprehensive of her career—Williams and Lowman have mined her archives for a collaborative ’zine to give away at the show. She’s had fun looking back at her work—the early sex drawings, the calligraphic doodles, the big, gestural abstractions, even some strange figurative work that will be shown for the first time. “There are things that seemed too weird at the time,” she says. “Things that I liked but thought other people would think were really bad. I can appreciate them again.”