Williams in wonderland

There are those among us who live lives of incredible richness.

And there are those among us who expose lives of incredible richness.

Rarer still are the art lovers, like Jonathan Williams, who do both.

In 1978, the (now unfortunately defunct) NC Arts Journal published an issue on Black Mountain College and small presses. They asked Chan Gordon, owner of Captain’s Bookshelf then as today, to run up to Highlands and interview Williams, a poet, publisher and proud BMC alumnus.

It turned out to be a life-altering experience for Gordon.

The bookshop owner recently stated: “I had boned up a little, done some reading, and possessed some baby-pool knowledge of the varsity players of the college. I was nervous, but felt prepared. I wasn’t. And I had no idea that the next seven hours would change my life, that an acquaintance born that day would live as friendship these 26 years later.”

Recently, Gordon instigated simultaneous shows at Captain’s Bookshelf and at Asheville Art Museum of Williams’ photographs, books from his Jargon Society press and objects from his personal art collection.

Still, “the exhibitions,” Gordon says, “barely scratch the surface” of the depth and scope of Williams’ own work and of his collection of others’ work — mostly by so-called outsider or vernacular artists.

But the pieces live together in a surreal kind of harmony. At the Art Museum, Jargon books are encased in vitrines alongside ceramics by M.C. Richards and Georgia Blizzard; the sculptural “Poetry Crown” once worn by North Carolina folk artist James Harold Jennings; and a doll, “Amazing Greg,” from the disenfranchised originator of the Cabbage Patch Kids.

From the most elite pieces (a portrait of Williams drawn by famous British artist David Hockney) to raw expressions from regional art makers, Williams, who still lives in Highlands, has sought out objects that express sincere meaning.

Photographic portraits (most culled from Williams’ recent book, A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude) make up the bulk of the Captain’s Bookshelf exhibit — and demonstrate the same fresh sense of democracy. There’s no Richard Avedon-style drama happening here: The tributes are straightforward, simple and sometimes incredibly moving. The 1955 color shot of Black Mountain College poet Robert Duncan, for example, is among the most tender and beautiful: Duncan is centered in the frame, standing casually, hands in pockets, before a Mission District wall in San Francisco.

The serenity of the Duncan photo is not found, however, in the portrait of James Harold Jennings, taken in 1986 at the home where Jennings was born and eventually died. The folk artist willingly faces the camera wearing his Poetry Crown and a pleasant, otherworldly expression. But the debris that was his medium lies meaningfully scattered about, and his look is clear even without the accompanying quote extracted from him by Williams (“These Republican politicians are making it hard for art,” Jennings quipped at the time).

Back at the Art Museum, the displayed books — those containing Williams’ own poems, and those published over the last 50 years by Jargon — are treasures all. We see BMC instructor Charles Olson’s enormously important Maximus poems (put out by Jargon in 1953), Henry Miller’s The Red Notebook, Robert Creeley’s All That is Lovely in Men, and Joel Oppenheimer’s The Dancer, with a cover drawing by Robert Rauschenberg. Other frontispieces and covers are by Aaron Siskind, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and RB Kitaj.

These exhibits are not to be dashed through. A long look will reveal important connections and a philosophical pattern of inclusion — but inclusion with a rare understanding of the fine and the extraordinary. Williams lives in a world of wonder. What’s more, he’s willing to share.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]


Jonathan Williams’ work shows at Captain’s Bookshelf (31 Page Ave.; 253-6631) through Friday, Nov. 12 and at Asheville Art Museum (2 Pack Square; 253-3227) through Sunday, Jan. 9.

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