1994 Scott Williams Interview (SF)

The folks at FoundSF/Shaping SF have been scanning neighborhood newspapers here in San Francisco and putting them online at Archive.org. Lisaruth from Shaping SF was nice enough to pass along this 1994 issue of the New Mission News, which included a great article about Scott Williams and his public/exhibited stencil art. Go here for the full article.

Here is Scott Williams' Stencil Archive, with photos from our own efforts as well as photos gong back to the 1980s submitted by Scott and his friends and fans.

2024 Update: After hearing news of Scott's death, we have decided to reprint this entire article inline here:

by Murray Paskin
for the September 1994 issue of New Mission News

The work of a single artist, Scott Williams, seems to leap out at you wherever you turn on Valencia between 17th & 20th Streets. His richly colored, idyllic, animal-filled mural greets you upon entering Clarion Alley. His lurid 40’s horror movie posters and cartoons from the same period are among the many images in that style covering the awning of Leather Tongue, a video rental store at 18th street. His blown-up, B&W comic book cartoon panels fill the Burger Joint at 19th street, and right up the block, toward 20th street, the Chameleon has a mural of his in its basement lounge, and a huge canvas that dominates the street level room of the club.

Williams’ art has its roots in the postmodern rebellion that reached its peak in the late 70s. It was a time when a new generation, feeling that mainstream art had become irrelevant to the changes taking place in American culture, restlessly searched for new ways of making art. An exciting development to come out of that period was the concept of appropriation and recycling of familiar images from pop culture, used quite differently from their original purposes. Williams recalls of his early art classes: “They had nothing to do with the art that was part of my daily life, the album covers, comics, the TV ads.”
As far as originality is concerned, “I rarely create an image from scratch. It seems to me the height of ego to think, in our day and age, that one paints something completely original. Beside, when I work with an image, consciously or subconsciously, it changes. At some point, it becomes mine. In a sense, I posses it.”

Though Williams’ work has the look and flavor of the post-modern school, there’s a distinctiveness to it not found in any other work of its kind. It lies in a wildly imaginative juxtaposition of disparate images and traditions that you’d never expect to see in the same space. In Williams’ work, those odd combinations evoke a sense of wonder. Who would imagine a picture containing a Picasso cubist image and a Walt Disney cartoon character? This outrageous sense of play runs throughout his work.

Over the years, he has amassed a humongous collection of images, all indexed and catalogued, from a variety of sources — comics, advertising, art reproductions, encyclopedias, and even pictures found on street comers and in trash cans. He creates stencils out of many of the images and uses them over and over in different combinations. Sometimes they appear enlarged or reduced and in different colors.

His display at the Burger Joint is a dazzling tour-de- force. The mural size black and white comic book images have an all-encompassing presence. It’s as if slide projectors were in the restaurant and running the images throughout the day.
A drippy, sentimental latino comic book panel containing a couple swearing undying love sits next to a lone, strong, pensive head of 30’s comic hero, Flash Gordon, in profile. Shorn of setting, the image appears more like an existential tragic hero than that of a familiar cultural icon. On the opposite wall, an idealized couple from a 50’s TV ad romp with their perfect looking children in their fun-filled world. Next to them, a 40’s movie poster displays a sad and lonely Joan Crawford-like woman sitting in an amoeba-like bubble.

The light and frothy look belies the rich complexity of the work. For example, through the artful juxtapositions combined with the stencil effect, and the rich emotional life when taken all together, the pictures become mythic. Each of the scenes portray a specific feeling. Sadness, love, joy, loneliness, solitude, mystery fill the walls, creating a kind of emotional tapestry.

The stencils play a much larger role in the work than merely easy reproduction. The squiggly lines and odd solid shapes, from which the images and their backgrounds are constructed, are created by the use of the stencil. The result bears a striking resemblance to the detailed intricacies of Islamic design.

The stencil effect also makes the outlines of the images fuzzy. You’re never quite sure where the background ends and image begins. The effect is a continuous emerging of pop-images from a dense jungle of curlicues and odd shapes. It also gives the images a vulnerable and evanescent look, as if they could easily dissolve in front of your eyes. You'r never quite sure where the background ends and image begins. The effect is a continuous emerging of pop-images from a dense jungle of curlicues and odd shapes. It also gives the images a vulnerable and evanescent look, as if they could easily dissolve in front of your eyes. At the same time, there’s a sense of a work having been blown apart into millions of pieces and then reconstituted into what appears before you. Here, within the form itself, a statement is made about the fragility and ephemeralness of all of life. In a sense, it’s like a post-modern impressionism.

His Clarion Alley mural is distinct from his other public work. There's not the tongue-in-cheek or social criticism with which Williams signature style is associated. Titled “Mission Wild Life Heritage,” the idyllic scene of animals around a watering hole is even at odds with the strong inner city themes of the neighboring murals. Yet, it has a beauty and fascination all its own. For one, the stencil approach gives it a jagged look which short circuits a picture post-card appearance. For another, the coloring is exquisite. Rich, greenish-brown marshy vegetation surrounds the dominating white-highlighted, lush, pale blue water. The large variety of animals adds even more rich color. All have black in them — shading, large blocks, or flecks. The black alternates with another color in each of the animals — orange, white, maroon, yellow, gray, red. Birds, fish, butterflies dart in and around bears, lizards, bobcats, raccoons. The animation of the animals make the scene come alive. They seem, in turn, inquisitive, curious, or lying in wait for prey.

Born in Santa Barbara in the early 50s, Williams arrived in San Francisco in 1979, via Santa Cruz and Sonoma, attending art classes along the way. Prior to San Francisco, his work consisted mostly of landscape painting. After arriving here, the excitement of the new avantgarde changed the ballgame for him. “Collage and xerox art was the rage. Also, it was the beginning of the Reagan years, which was a turning point. Nice government ended with Carter. It the was the year of Jonestown, the Moscone-Milk assassination. The nice, polite, mainstream art was more irrelevant than ever."