Damaged goods: Williams flaunts her flaws

Nalani Williams, "My Pal Half Nelson."
Nalani Williams, "My Pal Half-Nelson."

Images can be deceptive. Every week, pictures fill my inbox with teasers for exhibitions around town. Usually, they're fairly accurate, but sometimes the mailed reproductions look better than the actual art. Other times, as in the case of Nalani Williams, the mailed images barely scratch the surface of the vision and depth of detail found in the originals.

Williams, whose show, "Salt Where the Sugar Should Be," is currently on view at The Southern, follows two artistic trajectories: photography and drawing. Although her retro-esque Polaroid snapshots and cartoon-like drawings diverge in terms of content, they share a fascination with the gritty and overlooked underside of life. Williams pursues what I call a "hipster aesthetic" of jaded naivetĀ©. Unlike most hipsters, though, she brings an intention to her work–- even when allowing happy accidents to occur–- that energizes and enriches it.

Williams' drawings at first glance appear to be charred pen-and-ink compositions peopled by oddly proportioned figures. Her chaotic and purposefully raw approach to line carries echoes of cartoonists Ralph Steadman, Roz Chast, and Mike Judge (during his Beavis and Butthead period), mixed with a dash of Cubism. But a closer examination reveals surprising textures and effects unachievable by pen and ink alone.

In truth, Williams' technique is laborious and careful. She draws an image and then scans it into her computer, sometimes crumpling the page to alter its surface. After embellishing the work digitally, she prints the image on canvas and finishes the piece by adding further ink.

Despite this complex layering, her drawings exude a spontaneous energy. For instance, "My Pal Half-Nelson" is strangely compelling, with one line-drawn figure holding another in a headlock on the right, while most of the rest of the piece appears burned. But, tellingly, the "charred" area's sepia edge follows the same line as the arm and shoulders of the main figure.

Williams' photographs offer a similar impulsive quality. Capturing throwaway moments, they mimic random snapshots tossed in a box and lost by the side the road. Blurred here and mottled and scratched there, Williams' wonderfully composed images appear to be artifacts culled from strangers' lives. In "Ryan," a man wearing only white gym shorts strikes a cheesecake pose on a green lawn. The viewer is cast as a voyeur, riveted by what appears to be a private photo from the 1960s.

With a wry eye for flawed beauty, Williams finds depth in damage.

Nalani Williams' exhibition, "Salt Where the Sugar Should Be" is on view through May 2 at The Southern, 103 S. First St. 977-5590.