Bedwyr Williams: MILQUETOAST – Reviewed


New exhibition MILQUETOAST has been devised to poke fun at and ask questions of an art world rife with barely hidden hierarchies and cliché. Denise Courcoux finds Bedwyr Williams on impish form…

The extravagant absurdity of the art world is reflected back at itself in excruciating detail in MILQUETOAST, an exhibition of recent work by Bedwyr Williams. Though Williams is an artist and, by definition, part of that world, he approaches the subject with the curiosity and exactitude of an undercover reporter who has infiltrated a secret society to observe its strange codes and rituals.

The central space of the gallery is dominated by glass-topped vitrines containing grids of small, square, black-on-white ink drawings. Like the daily digital drawings that populate the artist’s Instagram feed (shown on a projected reel), each offers a vignette of life in the art world. Those, like myself, who work in the arts, will find many of the characters and scenarios portrayed in Williams’ cartoons uncannily familiar, or at least, not a stretch of the imagination.

“Captions satirise the sycophantic interdependencies of an arena weighted towards extroverts” 

The super-specificity – ‘Muscular European artist doesn’t like small talk’ and ‘Sulky daft haircut designer looking for weird font for art festival’, for example – adds to their authenticity. These written descriptions are part of the drawings, skipping around the paper’s white space and slinking into drawn signage, clothing, and the contours of characters’ faces (hi there, ‘playful curator’). Captions such as ‘Epic dinner and catchup with these two deities’ satirise the sycophantic interdependencies of an arena weighted towards extroverts, and those who operate with social ease.


It might sound like bitterness permeating the humour of Williams’ work, but although there is definitely bite, the overall effect is somewhere between amusement and bemusement. A series of unframed canvases of varying sizes and styles is scattered along the length of one side of the gallery. In some of the paintings, Williams picks out details of what could be the unofficial uniform of a curator: white pumps with bare ankles, overtly designer spectacles and Ritter Sport as the European snack of choice. Other paintings are softer and surreal: a pair of disembodied legs, a face in a yellow cloud, a tubular arm descending like a ladder into a swimming pool. Some hint at displaced architectural forms, floating in mist.

“What architects and designers view as boldness is in fact part of a uniform, accepted house style from which they’re afraid to deviate”

The paintings are set against a large, vinyl wall drawing depicting various views of the exhibition’s titular character, Milquetoast. Milquetoast is not a person, but a building: a pastiche of the geometric shapes, and style over functionality that typify certain contemporary art galleries. Its name is synonymous with blandness and a lack of courage, suggesting that what architects and designers view as boldness is in fact part of a uniform, accepted house style from which they’re afraid to deviate. Against a black wall opposite is a neat line of pale grey, resin architectural models, punctuated by tiny streetlamps. Milquetoast is at the centre, flanked by fellow miniature imagined concrete buildings, some of which are familiar from the paintings opposite; an inverted pyramid here, an inexplicable tentacle or two there. As with the drawings, the satire in these models skirts close to reality, so that you could easily believe that some of them depict existing art galleries.


In the short film The Militia (2021), Milquetoast is the stock gallery setting in which the idiosyncrasies and hierarchies of its archetypal staff are laid bare. Animated in a clean, blocky style by Williams’ old college friend Steve Kirby and scripted by Williams, the latter narrates the film in a measured, deadpan tone which mimics the observational style of his drawings elsewhere in the exhibition; he describes details without comment, leaving the door invitingly open for viewers to pass their own judgement. The film’s narrative follows the discussions of a group of gallery workers, locked in an office inside their workplace which is under siege from an unseen, unnamed militia whose motives remain obscure. The workers are not fully revealed either; only their feet and ankles are shown, and they are referred to by their job titles rather than names, underlining the hierarchical nature of this workplace.

Bedwyr_3-webThey watch powerlessly on CCTV as the militia rampages through the gallery, starting with the gift shop where they contemptuously smash a ceramic tea set shaped like a breast, a bum and genitals, and upend the collections box to remove the loose change and ‘the three £20 notes that they always left in there’, as Williams wryly observes. The stereotypes of the different gallery roles are wittily drawn. The Technicians are expected to arm themselves with tools and act as the ‘natural defenders of the space’, but are offended at being characterised in this way by their colleagues. The Director, meanwhile, slips away for her daily relaxation routine, in which she connects with the building by pressing her neck against it, and drifts into a childhood reverie in which she is immersed in her grandparents’ bathtub.

The film is very funny, like much of the exhibition, but there are also themes for more sober contemplation belying this. Considering the riotous militia, the Director says, ‘We might not agree with anything these people say they stand for, but we should be careful about what we decide to mock them about’ – a revealing line which points to the othering of people and things that deviate from accepted norms. While the art world wrings its hands about its lack of diversity, Williams’ examination of the unspoken social rules it operates under hints at why this might be the case.

Denise Courcoux

Bedwyr Williams: MILQUETOAST is at Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham, until 11 September 2021

Posted on 08/09/2021 by thedoublenegative