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.