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Defying gravity, all grace

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Rochester Brainery Gallery Coordinator Jason Barber continues his curation of women-centric shows this month with Brittany Williams' "Ascension." Not only is the solo show by a young woman artist, but it exclusively features gorgeous portraits of young black women.

The show's title refers to Williams' rising star in the art world, but also alludes to the inspiring, optimistic tone in each of the portraits.

Williams, who is 27, was featured in CITY's 2014 Emerging Artists cover story, and was selected to be a muralist for WALL\THERAPY's 2015 summer festival, for which she created her first-ever mural at 488 Joseph Avenue (this work, "Blooming Mind," is represented in "Ascension" with a photograph and the concept sketch). She was part of a small group that traveled to Berlin in 2016 with WALL\THERAPY's artist exchange, where she created another mural and took part in a group art show.

She has since put up more murals around Rochester with the Roc Paint Division crew, a City of Rochester program through the Department of Recreation and Youth Services that employs Rochester youth to beautify different neighborhoods.

"Ascension" includes 11 acrylic portraits and several sketches for some of the finished pieces, which showcase Williams' deft draftsmanship. It's always fascinating to get a peek into the preparatory process of any artist, but I'm not overstating it when I say Williams' drawings are stand-alone works of art in their own right.

Each of the paintings and sketches feature the head and sometimes shoulders of a black woman, with an emphasis on warm, radiant melanin over sculpture-worthy bone structures and the weightless architecture of hair flowing and floating free or artfully bound into tight braids and twists.

While many of the portraits are straightforward, simply gorgeous renderings of beautiful women, there's an inescapable hint of the political in Williams' focus on black hair — if only because in 2017 black people are still challenged in the classroom, workplace, and on the red carpet for proudly showing off natural hair or for wearing styles that, when sported by white people, are considered to be hot trends.

Williams' focus on manes, curls, braids, and locs is ongoing — her 2014 show, "Hair Don't Lie," combined two of her interests, hair and basketball, in a series of portraits on NBA players' hair.

In two untitled paintings, Williams' subjects turn entirely away from the viewer, their braided and twisted hair becoming 100 percent the focus, and their solar skin is switched out for cool, shadowy steel tones set off by the acidic neon backgrounds. In each of these pieces, Williams has built up detailed studies from dark silhouettes with layer upon layer of increasingly light, fine brushstrokes. And the delicate contours of each painting are set in perfect contrast to the flat backgrounds and a simple golden hoop in each ear.

Aside from these two works, Williams' subjects more or less face the viewer or stare off to the side into some dreamy, private middle ground, each holding a contemplative, at-ease, powerful gaze. She underscores this point by titling her work accordingly with names like "Gaze" and "Solitude."

Many of the women are adorned stylishly with playful, retro squiggle patterns, or with two of Williams' favorite symbols: flowers and Monarch butterflies. Floral details adorn or conceal, as in "Behind the Bliss," in which a pair of doe eyes assess and dazzle the viewer from behind a burst of white roses and critically arched brows.

Monarchs cover the mouth of one young woman in the yellow version of Williams' "The Butterfly Effect" series, perhaps alluding to the powerful impact, for better or worse, of our words in this world. In the blue version, the bugs obscure the eyes of the subject, cramped beneath her glasses and turning her lenses into stained-glass windows. And in the red version, the butterflies emerge from beneath the subject's shirt, as if emerging from her heart, and she turns her face to consider one that's already taken wing off to the side.

Williams' inclusion of blossoms and butterflies as symbols of growth and transformation are reminiscent of her past works — where these details literally pour from the open heads of subjects or from behind their mask-like faces — but these fresh takes have a more polished impact. These new paintings are portraits of quiet, contemplative grace; youths with an underlying potency on the precipice of self-actualization.

A closing reception for "Ascension" will take place on Friday, July 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. You can find more of Williams' art at bdubart.tumblr.com.

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