One of the latest acquisitions at the Williams College Museum of Art is “Bound,” a striking work of spray paint on canvas.
Its fabric hangs, bolted to the wall, above the door of the Rose Study Gallery, presiding over the entrance hall of the museum. Rendered dominantly in blacks and grays, its two large, sexually ambiguous figures stand facing the viewer, constricted and blindfolded by ribbons of cloth. Small lines of black, occasionally highlighted in bright white, dart around the painting, seemingly attacking the unfortunate subjects. Behind their faces, scurrying, tentacular limbs streak across the canvas as their forms seem to play harmlessly around the prisoners.
The display of the canvas itself, before our eyes can even scan across its surface, suggests a raw, visceral tone. It is not framed, preserved or otherwise presented in a manner that would elevate its stature or suggest a separation from the reality of the onlooker; instead, the large metal pins fastening it are driven right into wall, sprawling it out for all to see. The effect is reminiscent of a raw hide being fastened for tanning: Its corners and edges are stretched taut at certain points and left to stretch and sag slightly at others.
The figures in question seem to be backed against the wall, the shadows of their bodies and hair visible immediately behind them. This has the disconcerting consequence of propelling their space right into our own, as their frightening, looming bodies are thrust much closer to our field of vision than is comfortable. Their contours also contribute to the eerie, uneasy atmosphere exuded by the piece: The lines with which the two captives are rendered are smooth and regular, as is emphasized by the calm, linear application of the spray paint. One would expect these tortured figures to writhe with energy and torsion, struggling to break their bindings; yet, their nearly sculptural forms stand still as stone, gazing into the distance with wrathful eyes that we can sense peering from under the blindfolds.
The multitude of pins accumulating around them, which resemble a school of violent, threatening fish, all project their lines towards a point of convergence, aiming for the vulnerable bodies of the two prisoners. Their lines are rendered in quick, audacious spurts of paint, defined with less precision than the neighboring elements on the canvas. They too cast small, similarly sharp and vicious shadows across the wall behind, and as such, they are rendered as hovering, separate and distinct, all waiting to pierce the stony flesh of our subjects as if animated by some sentient, malevolent mind.
The only flashes of color present in the work are spatters of red, blood drawn from the bound, unflinching figures. Rendered without any pretention of realism or texture, they are applied brazenly and heavily right out of the can, and the glistening tendrils of deep red that drip across the canvas seem still wet. The source of these wounds is unclear: In the figure to the left, three pins are placed near the gruesome mark, yet on the right the cause is unclear, as if the blood began to flow spontaneously. These punctual blots emphasize the jarring contrasts of value displayed in the painting. Most lines are depicted in a thick, uncompromising black, with little in the way of intermediary shading. The rest of the work is in a drab, intentional gray, plunging the figures into shadow. Only their skin, not much of which is visible, is picked out in a brilliant white; however, the limited palette renders this flesh not as rosy, rich and full of life, but as a cold, unyielding surface, simply inorganic matter out of place in the human body.
This, perhaps, unbalances the viewer the most: Deprived of any narrative clues or structure, the visual elements of the painting stand as is, offering no explanation for the bizarre, disturbing imagery. The unclear, sometimes smoky treatment of the medium presents no clarifications and instead places the scene in an undefined, blank limbo, where objects and figures are suspended as if in nothing.
This article is part of our new arts column, “What’s Hanging,” which will highlight single works of art acquired by local museums.