The Rebirth of Narcissus: Jim Williams’ Self-Portraiture


_MG_9895Within Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood there remains an unassuming stout chalk white house. Fragmented groups of individuals inched across the street and then lingered around the home, seeming uneasy about entering. It felt akin to a scene out of an M. Night Shyamalan film, and that’s how I knew I was in the right place: at artist, Jim Williams’ house tour. Only ten people were allowed to peek into Williams’ unorthodox studio tour at a given time. Of course, he was the guide, giving information that resembled a personalized secret. Before the tour began, Williams had us sign in and wait for the remaining people. There was a specific element of discomfort waiting in his living room, most likely due to the general way people interact with art inside the walls of museums and galleries; where were the white walls and illuminating studio lights? Williams’ house was the exact opposite of a gallery, it was anthropomorphized.

Throughout the tour there were five major rooms where self-portraits were displayed like dadaists collages. Within the thicket of these two dimensional pieces, there lives an intersection between sculpture and photography. Williams’s face is transposed onto the forms of plaster and geometric paper masks, which are donning at least one of the following: mop tendral hair, wooden kindling arms, or the epitome hippie shoe, birkenstocks. Akin to scarecrows, these life-size figures represent Williams at different ages. He argues that many of his works “hark back to the innocence,” and this is evident above the light switch where the biblically charged body of David is pasted on the wall with what appears to be Williams’ third grade school portrait as the head.


Despite Williams’ charm and humble demeanor, he can’t escape the stigma and and largest challenge self-portrait artists must slay, the argument that the work exists beyond the ego. He suggests that one needs a sense of humor to approach the work, but Williams also stated that “there are times when the idea of self-absorption has to be considered. It would come into my thoughts, whether I wanted it to or not. I have thousands of photographs of myself, how do you live with that?” Walking on the squeaky wooden floor, it’s arduous not to think of narcissism as an aspect to Williams’ retrospective. What is unique regarding Williams’ archive is how early it begins and the appropriation of self-portraiture and personal objects which to some could be seen as junk. There are John Waters Worship Instructions and metal hybrids between childhood and stagnant sculpture. The self and other resides within Williams and that is what differentiates his work from utter egocentric themes. He incorporates personalities outside of the myopic individuality and fuses the self with objects.

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If you’re looking for an unorthodox house tour with a charismatic and thoughtful tour guide look no further. If you’re thirsty, Williams offers you a bottle of water with his personal headshot cemented to the one-time use plastic object. He will show you his favorite Vivian Maier book and rip off part of his archive and give it to you, poetically intertwining your archives together. Williams’ piece is a rarity in the art realm, the concept of taking the viewer into an artist’s home while they are still alive is an oddity. There is an elemental difference between 265 I and a gallery setting which is the aspect of livable art, where one is immersed in the practice of the artist and has the opportunity to see recherché sketches which will ultimately become brittle and turn to dust. The pieces that live within Williams’ home give one a sense of nostalgia for something that isn’t your own recollection. The tour is an experience that successfully lives where the artist resides and it’s questionable if his retrospective could have appeared anywhere but there.


All images courtesy of Cara Despain

Tours are available throughout the summer to only ten people at a time – reserve a spot by sending an RSVP email to The visits to Williams home will be from 7:00 – 8:00 PM on June 30th, July 14th, and August 11th. For more information regarding what’s on exhibtion at the UMOCA, visit