As Lexington photographer Guy Mendes remembers him, Jonathan Williams was an artist with a “gift for engaging people in conversations and in interests. He wasn’t just someone who was passing through. He was genuinely interested in all manner of folks.”
Mendes, who often had the North Carolina-based artist stay at his home when Williams visited Lexington, sees similarities between Williams and Phillip March Jones, the founder of Institute 193, the modest but influential gallery on Limestone in downtown Lexington.
“Phillip reminds me of a young Jonathan Williams, with a big appetite for all different kinds of art, and people, and an interest in bringing them to light,” Mendes says.
Jones’ gallery is bringing light to Williams’ work with A Palpable Elysium, an exhibit of portraits of authors including Ezra Pound and Henry Miller, and numerous notable Kentuckians, including Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, and writer Wendell Berry. The exhibit opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday (May 24, 2012).
The exhibit is drawn from the 2002 book of the same name, although Jones says the prints displayed are not original prints from Williams.
“We didn’t have access to the original photographs, which belong to Yale (University),” Jones says. “We didn’t ask because we don’t have climate control that fits their standards. So we basically did large-scale prints of some of the pieces, and then a slide show in the back. And the slide show sort of mimics the way Williams originally displayed the work.”
A slide show was how Mendes first encountered Williams, when Williams would set up a projector, show the images and expound upon the many people he met and knew, some famous and some not, but all interesting.
The Asheville, N.C., native studied at Black Mountain College there after stops at Princeton and Chicago’s Institute of Design. At Black Mountain, he founded the Jargon Society, a press that eventually published the words and images of many unknown and outsider artists and authors, some of whom became very well known, including Buckminster Fuller and Howard Finster. The imprint’s best-known and only really profitable book was Ernest Mickler’s White Trash Cooking, published in 1986 with recipes such as cooter pie and okra omelets.
Jargon’s signature was beautifully designed books. The New York Times’ obituary of Williams, who died in 2008, noted that artist Robert Rauschenberg was once engaged by Jargon to illustrate its publication of Joel Oppenheimer’s poem The Dancer.
Jargon’s latest publication is Jones’ Points of Departure, a book of Polaroid photographs of roadside memorials.
Williams is survived by his longtime partner, Thomas Meyer, who wrote the foreword to Jones’ book and worked with Institute 193 on the exhibit.
Williams was an artist in his own right, but one of his most valuable traits was as a catalyst for relationships, Mendes and Jones say.
“He was the straw that stirred the drink,” Mendes says. “He would come to town and introduce Guy Davenport to Gene Meatyard, and they became fast friends for years. He’d introduce the Berrys to Meatyard, or take them all to see Tom Merton.”
Davenport, who wrote the foreword to Williams’ book, was a Lexington writer and artist who died in 2005. Lexington optician Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who died in 1972, was an experimental photographer known for his work with masks.
Mendes had the dual experience of being Williams’ subject and photographing him.
“Jonathan was really excellent at getting people to relax and give of themselves,” says Mendes, whose picture is in the Palpable Elysium book. “He made portrait-making an occasion. It was a fun thing to do: Let’s make some portraits, stand over here, hold this, do that.
“But while it was a fun thing to do, there was also lovely composition, and he had a way to find the right gesture and elicit from them a memorable image.”
The Palpable Elysium book, Mendes says, is a great record of history and a visually compelling book.
The exhibit, Jones says, “dovetails nicely with what we do here at Institute 193, because we deal with publications and bringing to light emerging talents — artists, writers and musicians. That’s very much what the Jargon Society under Williams was.”
Mendes says, “A lot of artists work in a cave and don’t venture out that often and rarely champion another artists. But with Jonathan, part of his reason for living was to bring other artists to light who were obscure or, as he used to say, people that will never be in People magazine.”