Upon first glance, Amanda Williams’s Reliquary 1: To Unlearned People This May Seem to be Full of Nothing and Void of Humanity looks exactly as described in the title. Cut from sheets of plywood, the piece appears like a small house, constructed from panels painted white, and consisting mostly of void, where the wood has been removed. However, on closer examination, one can see that each sheet of plywood is actually a figure — the rectangular holes represent lots, the wood that remains represents streets, and the entire house is folded from the flat surface of a map. This is a house that has been built from a map of Englewood, a neighborhood in South Chicago.
The Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago’s exhibition, “Chicago Works: Amanda Williams” showcases a number of the artist’s pieces that play with the distinction between space and representation, between architecture and sculpture, and between three dimensions and two dimensions. While the work is quite conceptual, it is also highly engaging, and draws the viewer into an investigation of how space, architecture, representation, and cities work in the context of Chicago.
For example, seeing images from Williams’ Color(ed) Theory Suite, it is impossible not to be engaged by the notion of a boarded-up house painted bright purple, in the case of Crown Royal Bag, or deep orange, as in Flamin’ Red Hots. Williams chose these colors in “color palettes” that she assembled from found detritus in the streets, and then with community help, painted abandoned homes in that color, before the homes were eventually torn down and destroyed. This work can only be seen in photographs and video documentation now, but Williams also saved some of the painted wreckage, and repurposed it into sculptural works in the gallery. What once was the background color of the street, became the exterior color of a building, which then became rubble, which then became art again. In between these transitions, the notion of what a neighborhood looks like, used to look like, and ought to look like, evolves with Williams’s aid.
In A Dream of Substance, a Beamer, a Necklace, or Freedom? she takes that neighborhood exterior as template once again, building a small enclosure from white gallery walls in the exact proportions of a typical Englewood lot. Enlisting community help again, the inside of that space was coated in imitation gold leaf. But one cannot enter this space in the gallery, only peer into it through narrow spaces. The negative space, filled with alluring color, represents a South Chicago space that most who attend the MCA show will never see in actuality, but only in representation. It too is only image, even as it remains three dimensional.
In her Chicago is Iraq? Series, Williams overlays paper cuts of neighborhood maps inside the hollow shape of a map of Iraq’s borders, to draw attention to the popular nomenclature “Chiraq”, used to both disparage and celebrate violent crime in South Chicago. In these pieces, mapped space is used most literally, represented in two-dimensional paper, And yet three-dimensional space is created, reminding us that regardless of the politics of the nomenclature, South Chicago and Iraq are both, still, spaces. They are not simply maps, analogous or not, but places, where people live, and experience violence before the media that tries to contextualize that violence as acceptable or not.
The installation is relatively small, but the work, and the space it contains, is huge. An artist trained as an architect, Amanda Williams has a talent for condensing spaces into representations, while also questioning what that condensation means for the people who live within those spaces.