Robert Williams gilding skeleton

Cumbrian artist joins American exhibition investigating Periodic Table

Professor of Fine Art Robert Williams is part of a creative collective that is taking part in a new high-profile American exhibition.  

The exhibition, Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art, brings together an impressive list of international artists, including several from both sides of the Atlantic, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut.  

Fellow featured artists include Turner Prize nominees Cornelia Parker and Simon Patterson, and New York-based Matthew Barney. 

The Aldrich is one of the few independent, non-collecting contemporary art museums in the United States, and the only museum in Connecticut devoted to contemporary art. 

Professor Williams, chair of the Arts Research Initiative within the Institute of Arts at the University of Cumbria, has just returned from the United States, where he has been relocating and reimagining his long-standing Alchemist’s Shack project. It has been transferred from Pennsylvania into a purpose-build facsimile at The Aldrich.

Professor Robert Williams

The long running project focuses on the creation of an alchemical laboratory housed in a vernacular building.  

Williams (pictured, left) says of the project: ‘The Alchemist’s Shack is made up of material that reveals the lost homeland of the ex-pat, creating a nostalgic, if inaccurate view of a past England, and impossible futures for a long-lived alchemist passing through different cultural moments, building a reality that is contingent upon the library and collection of objects contained in the shack.

“In referencing the first American alchemist, Eirinaeus Philalethes, it also offers an idealised and largely fictional American alchemical role model, existing nostalgically in a sort of eternal mythic time. The enterprise is very much like alchemy itself - a search for enlightenment, an enquiry that takes on many forms, and rather like alchemy, does so poetically, whilst eclectically plundering other forms of knowledge.” 

Alchemist's Shack King & Queen

Above: King & Queen

Richard Klein, the exhibition curator, writes: “(It is) a group exhibition that links individual works of art with an element of the periodic table which each work incorporates. Superficially, the exhibition’s foundation is science, but through expansive curatorial choices the project will reveal the material basis for sociological, emotional, political, and even spiritual subject matter. 

“Artists use specific materials for a reason, quite often for their metaphoric potential, and Prima Materia will explore hard facts as well as alchemical conjecture.” 

2 Alchemist's Shack interior panorama

Above: Interior panoramic of The Alchemist's Shack

Exhibition details: Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art. Curator: Richard Klein. The Aldritch Contemporary Art Museum. Ridgefield, Connecticut, USA. February 5 - August 27 2023. 

Participating artists: Matthew Barney (USA-copper); Edward Burtynsky (Can-cobalt, lithium, uranium); Rachel Berwick (USA-cobalt); Dove Bradshaw (USA-mercury, sulfur, arsenic, copper); Julian Charriére (Swiss-carbon); The Dufala Brothers (USA-carbon); Ashley Epps (USA-helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon); Philip Grausman (USA-aluminium, zinc); Tom Leher (USA); Jeffrey Meris (Haiti-calcium); Bryan McGovern Wilson (USA-uranium); Myra Mimlitsch-Gray (USA-iron, silver); Cornelia Parker (UK-gold); Simon Patterson (UK-The Periodic Table); Beverly Pepper (USA-iron); Winston Roeth (USA-cadmium); Peter Selgin (USA); Sunny A. Smith (USA-tin); Eleanor White (UK-lithium); Edward Steed; Carlos Vega (Spain-lead); Eleanor White (UK); Robert Williams (UK-Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum-The Alchemist’s Shack). 

Notes to editors

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Further images available on request