Senon Williams (photo: Oliver Wilson)
Fans of acclaimed Los Angeles-based Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever know that there’s no bass player more visual than Senon Williams, who towers over lead singer Chhom Nimol, thrusts his bass well into the third row of concert attendees, and strolls over to sing backup in unison with guitarist Zac Holtzman, all the while letting Chhom retain her rightful role as center of attraction.
But Williams has long been equally active as a visual artist as well, and has just put out his first book of his artwork. Not surprisingly, his ink-on-paper drawings and paintings juxtaposed with minimalist text are as visually compelling as his stage persona.
Entitled Hunted & Gathered and published by Hamilton Press, the 208-page hardbound features 129 recent works defined by pop art printmaker Ed Ruscha as “picto-thoughts, with all their doom, hope and meaning,” that compiled into book form make “a new kind of novel.” Author/publisher Tosh Berman further characterizes Williams’ work as “Kafka-like,” his book “a trip through a landscape of what one could call classic existential issues,” where “humor and despair are blood brothers.”
Indeed, the book’s first piece is representative: Beneath handwritten text--“Will the last two fight?”--two anonymous black figures stand together, apparently holding hands, the shadows behind them forming nine red figures lying on the ground, presumably dead.
“Ink on paper,” says Williams. “I’m not trying to create a new way to make art—no neon lights, no collage, nothing fancy. Just ink on paper.”
Thematically, he adds, his artwork—and the book’s title--“means whatever you want it to mean.”
“The general purpose of my art--or art that I appreciate—is to leave it open-ended: It could mean a lot of things, but the simplest way of putting it, to me, is that it manifests my collective thoughts—like taking little tidbits of thought, that were either sought after or were just kind of filtered into my net, and making a record out of them. And there are never answers: I’m not really interested in answers with my artwork—just questions.”
Williams has always been an artist, but never so focused on his art than now.
“When I’m touring, I have a drawing kit bag filled with inks, brushes and paper,” he says. “As soon as I get to the hotel I set everything up on the desk. Sometimes I find time to draw and other times I pack it all up without doing anything. But I always take the kit on the road.”
And always, when conceiving his artwork, “words come first.”
“Not entirely, but I’m definitely affected by what I hear and see every day,” says Williams. “By looking at headlines and dates, there’s a progression and narrative that shadows current events.”
Hunted & Gathered (also the title of one of the book’s pieces) came about when L.A. artist/printmaker Ed Ruscha saw a small show of Williams’ work at a boutique in Silver Lake during the 2016 holiday season, and bought four pieces.
Ruscha, with master printmaker Ed Hamilton, had established Hamilton Press in 1990 to encourage artists to produce art in a peaceful, unhurried atmosphere.
“He asked me to come to his studio with a stack of drawings. I brought 100 and he bought 10 more, and then last February he called and said my artwork would make a great picture book. I spent six months constructing it with book designer Lorraine Wild and an assistant, mostly from work made in 2016. We finally drew a cutoff point, since I’m constantly creating and favoring my new stuff.”
Perhaps one work, an upended bucket of paint spilling into a mutli-colored triangle opposite the message “I am all those things,“ is symbolic of Williams’ whole.
“A collector was buying some work and looked at my drawing of a sunset and said, ‘That’s more you,’ and I said, ‘It’s all me.’ There’s not just one drawing I can point to and say it’s clearly what I am, but certain ones strike a note. And I like how there’s a wordless western theme in the middle that breaks up the book and creates a flow right where you’re feeling overwhelmed, and takes you on a solitary search—and then it’s back to all the words and dialogues.“
Williams also likes the ending of the book: a black-and-white drawing of a book with the message, ‘The good news is the latest book I ordered arrived and I still like to draw,” followed by one of a man standing alone at the edge of a cliff alongside the text “Ooh la lost”—punctuated by a black ink splotch.
“It reiterates the idea of questioning, and that it’s not so much the answers, but open thought and searching—and that I keep carrying on.”
As for Hunted & Gathered’s first piece, Williams voices its question, “Will the last two fight?“
“The answer is probably yes, probably no. If it’s me and you, they probably would. If it’s me and my wife, probably not!”
Meanwhile, Dengue Fever headlines the Burger A-Go-Go West Coast tour of female-fronted bands (Dengue Fever is fronted by Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimol, and has released cassette tapes via indie label Burger Records).
Williams says that the veteran band is working on future releases on its own label at its own pace.
Dengue Fever performs "A-Go-Go"