Robert Williams is a very entertaining speaker. He's got a warm presence, a no-fuss extempore looseness, and a stand-up comedian's talent for delivering nonstop comic shocks to his audience (though without stand-up's obvious intention to be "funny"). He seems surprised by life, and he sounds great. There's the lingering tang of the Southwest in his voice, a hint of drawl and something high and slightly reedy around the edges whenever he hits a rising intonation. He hits rising intonations a lot when he's talking about his work, which, at times, seems to scandalize him almost as much as it scandalizes anybody else. There's no apology in his voice, but a touch of surprise at his own temerity: like his old Zap Comix stablemate Crumb, Williams has mastered the art of disarming criticism by copping, with a sort of shoulder-shrugging matter-of-factness, to the often lurid and assaultive nature of his own work. His voice rises to meet the sleaziness of the images he shows, and then he pushes past the initial shock to tell stories: yarns, fables, absurdist scenarios that unpack what seems to be going on in the paintings. There's probably some calculation behind this -- after all, he's been stumping for his work so long now that he's bound to have a set spiel -- but his general air seems genial enough, and unaffected, and his work itself, with its droll, tongue-lolling air of subversion and frequent outrageousness, is so unlike his amiable spoken delivery that the contrast strikes sparks. Who is this gracious gentleman, and why is he showing us such nasty things?
(I wrote all of the above before discovering the first photo up top, a portrait shot by comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz way back in 1998. Granted that the years have grayed Williams a little bit, but, still, I see the same air of lightly sardonic humor in that face. See Patrick's comment at the bottom of this post!)
There is also, behind Williams' self-deprecating appeals to audience, a passion for craft, an analytic sharpness, and a steely determination to represent his work, his way. Williams has at his disposal what he calls "art-speak" that is, an academic language of analysis and interpretation, and it occasionally surfaces in his comments (ostensibly unscripted but probably oft-repeated) about where his art comes from and how it fits, or doesn't, into the larger art-critical scheme of things. To say that he knows what he's talking about is a pitiful understatement. Both aspects of Williams' delivery, the off-the-cuff yarnspinning and the critical position-taking, were much in evidence on Wednesday, March 10, at the campus of California State University, Northridge -- my university -- when Williams delivered a Burkhardt Foundation Artist Lecture.
The occasion was the current Williams exhibition at the CSUN Main Gallery, Conceptual Realism in the Service of the Hypothetical, recently transported from New York's Tony Shafrazi Gallery (a long-time ally of the artist) and slated to continue until April 3. Williams spoke to a packed crowd, close to 200 strong, in the campus's roughly 150-seat Johnson Auditorium, a confusingly long walk from the gallery. I arrived barely on time (after following a series of small blue signs taped to lampposts in defiance of the tugging wind) and ended up sitting in an aisle, on the floor, watching the other latecomers crowd the aisles and stairwells, so much so that getting into the building at all must have been nearly impossible for those who came a few minutes after me. As it happens, one of my students (hey Jane) grabbed a spot of aisle right next to mine. In short, this was a very well attended event (another paltry understatement), and by all appearances a successful one.
Williams got laughs, he got sharp intakes of breath (of the ohmigod variety), he got spontaneous bursts of applause (of the hear, hear variety), and, most importantly, he got rapt attention for an hour-plus. Most of the audience, I inferred, consisted of art students and art faculty. I had seen Williams speak once before, at the 2003 University of Florida Conference on Comics: Underground(s), and of course he hit some of the same notes this time around; here, though, the fine arts focus was stronger, the audience more attuned to painting than cartooning, and Williams seemed to turn up the self-deprecating and analytical commentary in response, as if to defuse controversy about his work even as he delivered one jolt after another. He knew where he was.
Williams' talk was basically a slideshow with commentary; the images were the spine. From the start, he emphasized that his artistic background was in "pretty rough" stuff; that his work arose from a dissident, counter-culture sensibility; that the work has been strongly criticized, particularly from feminist perspectives; and that what he does is difficult to intellectualize or make safe. He observed that his subject matter, much of which is spectacularly "violent" and/or comments on sexual anxiety, makes people "shit their pants," though, in his view, it's all "part of the pathos of life." He acknowledged, preemptively, that responses to his work have often been disapproving. Here are some telling remarks about particular images:
These have no socially redeeming value.
I guess if you had to, you could put intellectual content into this, but...I don't know.
Absolutely antisocial. There's nothing right in this painting. It's an abomination!
(That last one made me crack up.) Over and over, Williams pointed to his paintings like a freakshow curator staring aghast at his own specimens: Look at this...look at this. If the effect occasionally caused a bristling or throat-clearing awkwardness in the room (for example, when Williams explicated his painting The Thing in the Hope Chest, with its baby-cannibalizing scenario), it more often brought admiring laughter and head-nodding. Williams and his academic audience met halfway; the bracing, not to say ass-kicking, potency of the paintings seemed to wow most of the crowd. This was a fine performance, enlivened from the start by Williams' genuine gratitude and enthusiasm for being there.
It seems to me that Williams' work, while well into the territory of the surreal and (as he would say) hypothetical, is almost always animated by a narrative impulse. His glosses on the paintings would often start with synopses of what they were "about," narratively, or what their "statements" were, didactically. In just about every instance, interpreting the paintings turns out to be a matter of unspooling their implied stories. The influence of comics and cartooning -- in essence, of narrative drawing -- is omnipresent, not only in Williams' reliance on a personal archive of lowbrow image sources, not only in his use of caricature, but also, and to my mind most interestingly, in his formalist moves. I'm thinking here of his frequent incorporation of anchoring or suggestive text, which guides, glosses, and teases; his layering and juxtaposition of scenes and compositional areas, which effectively fragment the picture plane; and his use of vignettes: basically, inset panels that surround, impinge on, overlap, penetrate, and/or contextualize the big central images, implying sequence, consequence, and ironic interrelations. A lot of the paintings remind me of comic book covers: distillations of superheated imagery that sum up and "sell" implied narratives, often with textual blurbs and/or marginal elements (cameos, spotlights) around the edges.
As an example, consider these paintings, not on view in the exhibition but shown by Williams during his talk (click on the images for larger, better views):Above: The Myth of the Proletariat King (1997) [image courtesy of artnet.com]
Above: The Appetite That Dare Not Be Appeased (1999) [courtesy of artnet.com]
Given the way Williams leans toward narrative, it seems ironic that he bristles at the label illustrator. I'd say it's a fair descriptor of his work, really, as long as we can detach from illustration the sense of the supplemental or parasitic that so often is connotatively attached to the word. Granted that the word is often used condescendingly, but Williams does "illustrate" stories and ideas. That, along with his hypnotic command of paint, seems to account for much of his work's appeal.
See, the bee in Williams' bonnet is the way drawing, including narrative drawing, was severely devalued in late mid-20th century art criticism and art instruction: the classic complaint of the cartoonist and illustrator whose experience of art school, during the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism, must have been like that of a fish flopping on a dry deck. (Ironic, then, that Williams was giving a Burkhardt Foundation lecture, since Hans Burkhardt was known as an Abstract Expressionist!) Drawing and craft and enunciable illustrated content are important to Williams; messages, statements, and implied scenarios; concepts, teases, and provocations that invite a narrative unpacking. How discouraging to enter the art world at the time of narrative drawing's dismissal, when abstraction overtook figuration -- and then Conceptualism downplayed the idea of apprenticeship, hard-won craft, and refinement.
Despite Williams' obvious ties to subcultures and to the iconography of a certain louche species of Pop, his work is, I believe, divided from Pop Art by the latter's lack of focus on technique, on original drawing, and on the skill of independent visualization. Williams admires, and models, virtuosity. His nearest neighbors among painters are Surrealists (Dalí, De Chirico, and Tanguy are acknowledged influences), because he likewise brings breathtaking skill and clarity to fantastical, bizarre, and psycho-symbolically loaded material. If shamelessness is part of Williams' artistic profile, sheer craft is another. In his work, the surreality and fibrillating energy of underground comix are fixed to the canvas with a compulsive meticulousness that belies the premium he places, when speaking, on "energy" and "gusto" and sheer galumphing recklessness.
Williams' talk began with his formative professional gigs, working with Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (kustom kulture) and the Zap Comix collective (underground cartooning). The undergrounds, he noted, were produced under "the shadow of dissension"; Zap's contributors all were dissidents, and, he claimed, under the eye of the FBI. He duly noted the progress of his painting, from his first big canvases in the sixties (for one of which he mixed paint with fish scales to get an iridescent shine) to his punk-affiliated "Zombie Mystery Paintings" on rough'n'ready jute canvases, the coarse texture of which urged him "to loosen up and just pack the paint on," uncorking a manic energy. He did not discuss his activity as founder and leading light of Juxtapoz magazine (1994-) and the so-called lowbrow art movement (those accomplishments had already been duly noted by Molly Barnes, who introduced him). But he did note most of his art book releases, starting with the seminal The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams (1979). In addition, he discussed (as I had seen him do in Florida back in 2003) the marginalization of drawing within avant-garde art and his keen desire to see drawing and image-making reinstalled as important parts of the artist's toolkit. He cited Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, that dueling pair, when discussing something they had in common, namely, lack of interest in the very skills that interest him.
Williams also made a case for the art movement he currently identifies with, a movement I believe of his own coinage, conceptual realism, which he describes as an effort to "sneak realistic art under the wing of Conceptualism." This seems to me to be a type of Surrealism informed by the needling directness of political cartooning (Williams, note, has cited the neglected Rob Cobb as the first underground cartoonist); that is, a Surrealism that seeks to disavow or downplay Surrealism's links with Freudianism and metaphysics, as if to reinvigorate the movement. Williams has the expected psychosexual energy of Surrealism, but he ties it, I've noticed, to a vaulting ideological critique of contemporary consumerism, acquisitiveness, ecological degradation, and cultural decadence (at once skewered and indulged by his trash culture tropes). The conceptual realism tag, a knowing oxymoron, seems to be a bid to open up space for this kind of work while rescuing realistic technique from critical disdain or indifference.
Right after Williams' talk, a signing took place in the Art Gallery. I scurried over, hunched against the wind. The signing was likewise packed, with a long queue that diagonaled across the big central space, then curled into the back rooms of the exhibit, making foot traffic a challenge. I made a pit stop (euphemism) before the signing and it happened that Williams did too, so I remarked to him that my students and I had just been looking at Zap Comix that very day.
Williams thanked me for coming, because, honestly, what the hell else can you say to someone during a pit stop? His remarks about Zap, understandably, had a faraway feel. Soon he made it inside, to take up his seat of honor behind the signing table. The gallery's busy, convivial air made it clear that Williams is a bonafide art-hero. I avoided the queue and drifted round the show, occasionally observing the interactions at the signing table but mostly taking time to dig the work on view. I saw a guy crouching over with, I believe, a signed copy of Yellow Dog #8 (1969), which he carefully tucked away.
Though I had to splice through the line a few times (excuse me, pardon me) to get around, I had a great time at the exhibit, not only because of the bounty of work on view but also because I was fortunate to meet some cool people. Painter Jodi Bonassi works for the CSUN Art Gallery and made me feel quite welcome there; we discussed comics and her own work for some time, and then she introduced me to the Director of the CSUN Art Galleries, Jim Sweeters. Jim told me about the opening of the Williams show, which brought out a huge crowd and, he said, involved hot rods. I kicked myself again for missing it. Jim then introduced me to artist and CSUN illustration teacher Laurel Long, whose expertise in picture books piqued my interest. I hope to see all these folks again.
Above: "Beamin' Gleamer in 'A Flash in the Pan'," a.k.a. the "chrome" center spread from Zap #6 (1973), here reproduced as an outsized giclee print
The exhibit itself consists of recent work, most of it post-2005, though three of his contributions to Zap are represented by way of oversized prints. The show reveals what I take it are several new directions for Williams. Most of the oils, ranging from relatively small canvases (say, 16 x 12 inches) to very large ones, for example the eye-boggling The Persuasion of Right Angles (72 x 66 inches), are in recognizable Williams style, tight, sharp, and provocative as usual, with a mesmerizing command of the physical medium, yet they seem less taken up with luridness, sexual terror, and mayhem than his most famous work, more with insinuating irony and/or abstruse philosophical conundrums.
Above: The Persuasion of Right Angles (2007)
A willingness to jerk the viewer's chain is still very much in the mix, and a tortured libido may continue to percolate underneath, but wry humor predominates. I have the sense that Williams has raided the stock basket of pop culture icons -- pirates, devils, hot rodders, sexpots, et cetera -- enough to want something else. One new direction consists of small watercolors, of the same sort as are currently representing Williams in the Whitney Biennial, depicting absurdist images of roadside weirdness straight out of tourist postcards, or else quiet intimations of looming disaster. These I found intimate and downright mild: shy experiments rather than showcases for Williams' usual grandstanding virtuosity.
Above: The Left-Handed Ghost Stump (watercolor, 2009)
Other, larger canvases practice what Williams' notes call "exclamatory" painting, which is closer to raw drawing and has a bluntness akin to that of, again, editorial cartoons. These paintings are in a comparatively rough style consisting of black or very dark green linework, what Williams calls cartoon "calligraphy," laid over grungy color washes. They are allegories, favoring bold visual metaphors for greed, environmental spoilage, phoniness, sanctimony, media nuttiness, and other ills, and are closer to comics drawing than most of the paintings that fill Williams' past books. (I noted that one was on loan from Ed Ruscha.)
Above: Instant Sanctity (2007), an "exclamatory" painting
And then there were the sculptures, two large, funny pieces in fiberglass and auto body paint: monumental, deliberate follies blowing gleeful raspberries at passersby. These gleaming showstoppers were reportedly designed by Williams, fabricated with the help of Gentle Giant Studios, and painstakingly worked over and finished by Williams himself. They would edge into Jeff Koons territory, shiny, insouciant, and hollow, were it not for their overt allegorical-satirical jabs.
The cartoonist in Williams seems very much alive in these pieces, which I enjoyed rather more than I thought I would.
That's a fair description of my response to the whole experience. I'm not by nature a likely candidate for Williams fandom, since my interest in comix has mainly to do with sequential narrative; I tend to look for the development of story, or at least the delivery of ideas through sequence, rather than taking delight in comics simply as anthologies or constellations of images (as my recent take on Abstract Comics I suppose reveals). Also, I'm not much for the school of machismo that seems to hover around self-styled lowbrow art, parodic as that macho posturing may be; I don't usually dig the bluff cartoon aggression of the style. But I enjoyed Williams' talk greatly, and the exhibit too, and came away with a sharpened appreciation of his skill, intelligence, and desire to connect. I had previously admired, in a sort of disconnected way, the formal gamesmanship of his Zap comics, and had been interested in him as a survivor of the undergrounds, but after this show I realized I'd been underrating him (there's nothing like encountering art at life size to change your mind). Williams is an imagemaker of prodigious skill and generosity, and as good an argument as you could find anywhere for the suasive power of technique. If his work is sometimes cruel, his dedication to it is touching. Conceptual Realism, up at CSUN until April 3, is a very good show, and proof that Williams' gifts are not reducible to the movement he inspired.
PS. I should add that I returned three days later with my sons to reexamine the show and shoot some photos, and so once again was able to talk to Jodi Bonassi. She kindly took a snapshot for us;
The quietness of the place that day contrasted sharply with the bustle of three days before, and helped me focus more intently on the work. My initial impression was reconfirmed: a fine show, one I urge TB readers to check out if they can.
Some interesting resources on the exhibition and on Williams:
- Arrested Motion art blog (lots of pictures here)
- A review essay by Carlo McCormick on Williams, from artnet
- Sunsetstrip.com video interview with Williams (via YouTube)
- Hurley video interview with Williams