Nationally renowned contemporary artist Philemona Williamson (b. 1951) lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey and maintains her studio nearby in East Orange. She has resided in Montclair since 1997 and her work was first represented at the Montclair Art Museum in 2003 as part of an exhibition which I co-curated, “Growing Up: Childhood in American and Native American Art.” Since then, I have remained intrigued with her vibrantly colored, dynamic paintings, featuring adolescents intermingled and engaged in evocative poses and actions within mysterious settings. They suggest various transitions and stages of life from childhood through adulthood. Of indeterminate age, gender, and ethnicity, the figures often seem caught in awkward, enigmatic moments which seduce the viewer into a labyrinth of open-ended questions. Poetically titled, the works invite the viewer to use one’s imagination to try to interpret their complex, allegorical narratives. Initially engaged mostly with her own childhood memories, Williamson has in recent years focused on more universal, symbolic subjects, as well as the evolution of her painterly process with partially painted areas that reveal the drawing underneath the figures. A “thread of vulnerability” runs throughout her multi-layered work. Williamson came of age as an artist during the 1980s, a decade of renewed interest in figurative painting. Her contemporaries were the Neo-Expressionists Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel who became the art stars of the market-driven Reagan years. Their work was featured in a recent show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s,” prompting reflection on the process of how these artists have been enshrined, whereas many others have not received proper recognition. A broadening of the canon is necessary and it is a great pleasure to present the first major exhibition of Philemona Williamson’s work from 1988 to the present. Since the 1990s Williamson has had many solo shows and has been represented in important group exhibitions alongside such contemporaries as Whitfield Lovell, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker. Nevertheless, Philemona Williamson: Metaphorical Narratives is the first to thoroughly examine her work within the contexts of her life and her art world experiences. Why has Williamson’s work not received the full attention that it deserves after so many years of her steadily working, exhibiting, and evolving as an artist? A variety of possible explanations can be offered. Williamson’s multi-faceted narratives seems to defy art critics’ desires for tidy categorization and easy interpretations. Also the fact that her work has at times been segregated into shows of contemporary African American art evokes the club-like nature of the professional art world, which has primarily promoted the accomplishments of white male artists. Williamson has affirmed that her painted metaphorical narratives are about interpersonal relationships and are often inhabited by figures of varying complexions alluding to multi-racial ethnicities. This co- existence and the story-telling aspects of her work have their roots in Williamson’s upbringing. Philemona was born in New York City into an African American family from the South. Her mother and father, James and Mamie Williamson, were employed as live-in housekeeper and chauffeur/cook respectively by the heads of a wealthy Greek family who resided in the luxurious Art Deco River House (1931) on East 52nd street. While she and her parents maintained “a kind of quiet gentility,” their eccentric employers were involved in an endless family drama. There was always whispering and intrigue. Recalling that they talked about many things in a conspiratorial fashion, Williamson remembers that there were “open-ended narratives going on all the time.” She listened to operas and musicals and would act out all the parts with the family’s teenage daughters Natalie and Cornelia, with whom she also invented plays and stories and with whom she maintains a relationship today.