Don Williams at Jenkins Johnson Gallery

by Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle, September 8, 2007

We might call Sonoma artist Don Willliams a photo-realist in that he bases his pastels, at Jenkins Johnson, on photographs. But, like Robert Bechtle, Williams pursues low-key reflections on the peculiarities of representation.

Williams handles pastel without undue fussiness, knowing how suggestive it can be.

In “Two Point Perspective” (2007), he describes a school blackboard with a Sheeler-esque exercise in perspective drawing chalked on it. The top half of the picture and the perfectly frontal blackboard coincide completely, as do the chalk markings and the pastel markings, maybe with a little nod to Cy Twombly. Down below, spatial illusion takes over, accommodating a scarred wooden bench with a Styrofoam cup sitting on it that rhymes with the nearby wastebasket for which it may be intended.

Williams may also comment on the modernist belittling of realism as an academic style.

Other works on view pose different technical challenges. Several images of distant tornadoes and a night scene of a foggy intersection evoke watery realities in the dusty medium of pastel.




                                                                                                                                                                                                                            by Kenneth Baker, ARTnews,Frebruary, 1995


As Don Williams demonstrates, pastel is the ideal medium to describe the thin fogs that settle on Sonoma County where he lives, just beyond the  perimeter of suburban sprawl around San Francisco.

Several pieces in Williams's show were long horizontal views of low farm buildings sunk in morning grayness. In these landscapes he masters the the illusion of diffused, almost shadowless light, which emanates from no particular direction and gives no clue as to the hour of the day. The fog's tendency to soften geometry and thin out color is readily described by a deft touch with pastel. The mark of Williams's illusionist success in these pieces is not just his report on architecture veiled by mist but his ability to make the viewer feel that sharp,solid stuff that lies behind the atmosphere being portrayed.

The attention to underlying formal structure that we sense in the farm landscapes becomes explicit in Williams's nighttime images, such as Stop Sign.  Here the apparent light source is a streetlight beyond the picture's edge. The painting shows a stop sign, its back facing us, and an adjacent telephone pole. Both are set against inky darkness. Williams's technical skill is on display here in his use of pastel hues to evoke the way different materials - the wood of the pole, the unpainted metal of the stop sign's back- accept light.

The telephone pole, implying communication across distances, and the stop sign evoke the loneliness and anonymity touched on by the more pessimistic American Scene painters, such as Edward Hopper and Adolf Dehn. The night sky background in Stop Sign appears at first to be a uniform black. But on closer observation  it hints at the fading of the very last light behind a screen of trees, showing that Williams handles his darkest tones  with as much care as he does the lightest.