At first glance the scene is one of almost saccharine gentility: a pair of bonneted 19th-century ladies wander in a sun-drenched pastoral landscape, gathering posies. Then you notice that this tableau seems to be a painted backdrop standing on a darkened stage, with the blossoms incongruously flowing from backstage into the illusionistic space of the painted flat. Then you notice the source of the flowers another bonneted lady, this one with a tiny set of pink horns and a monstrously disproportionate lower body, including a fleshy reptilian tail with which she is systematically slicing wafer-thin cross sections that drift around the edge of the panorama to be plucked by The Pansy Gatherers at Myrtlewood Dale. What the fuck?!
Robert Williams has returned to soil the art worlds nest once more, is what. The instigator of the Lowbrow Art movement art director for Big Daddy Roths studio, contributor to Zap Comix, co-founder of Juxtapoz magazine has shown at such venues as Cal State Fullertons Grand Central Art Center and the lamented Julie Rico Gallery in Santa Monica. But Through Prehensile Eyes, the survey show opening this weekend at Otis College of Art & Designs Ben Maltz Gallery, is Williams most significant incursion into the Los Angeles art-world establishment since his controversial inclusion alongside blue-chip insiders like Mike Kelley, Charles Ray, Chris Burden and Lari Pittman in MOCAs influential Helter Skelter exhibit of 1992.
The selection of paintings, drawings, ephemera and actual hot rods in Through Prehensile Eyes, funded in part by the Pasadena Art Alliance and curated by Meg Linton, is indicative of the eradication of many of the borders between high and low art. The lowbrow/highbrow conversation comes up a lot, says Linton, but, really, there are so many different art worlds theres the plein air world, for example, or I have this friend whos an amazing wildlife artist, and she gets $25,000 for one of her paintings, but its something we wouldnt necessarily show in the museum. There are all these niche markets, but when you talk to the artists, they all talk about the same things like why they paint its all the same with the individual artists. There are all these parallel worlds, and its hard to say that one is more valid than the other.
Hard for some. In the early days of his decadeslong assault on the ivory tower, Williams was routinely reviled first by fellow Chouinard classmates and instructors, later by critics and other art-world insiders for his steadfast figuration, his cartoonish style and his ahem difficult content. Drawing from sources as diverse as EC horror comics, carnival art, tattoo design, Tijuana bibles, hot-rod culture, pulp illustration and monster movies, Williams cooked up an infernal gumbo of comically apocalyptic fever dreams that shredded the envelope of good taste. The larger portion of Through Prehensile Eyes surveys this period, and its easy to see what riled the critics. Beginning in the early 80s with the Zombie Mystery Paintings, Williams embraced the attitude and to a degree the stylistic vocabulary of the punk art scene. Painting in a fast, thick impasto on cheap, loosely woven jute, the Zombie Mystery Paintings portrayed unacceptable extremes of sexuality and violence in a provocatively parodistic pastiche of contemporary and Modernist quotation, usually with a meticulously sloppy fuck you of paint spatters directed at the third-generation abstract expressionists who told him that he wasnt a real artist. And where are they now? Hack heaven!
Stubborn and bilious wins the race as evidenced by the second section of Through Prehensile Eyes, which debuted at Tony Shafrazis blue-chip gallery a couple of months ago. That show was curated by Walter Hopps and positioned Williams latest body of work between paintings by René Magritte and the photographic tableaux of David LaChapelle. The new work is more restrained the disruptive layering of parallel universes is handled more subtly, the surfaces are more immaculate, there is little nudity or dismemberment, and the Ab-Ex drips have evaporated completely. But far from signaling a retreat from his vision, Williams new work can be better understood as a shift away from assailing specific non- figurative conventions (e.g., drips) to an assured demonstration of cartoon-based paintings potential.
Youve gone 50 years since after the Second World War denying representational art, says Williams. And I mean brutally denying it. And then, in the late 70s and early 80s, even denying painting. Paintings over, paintings dead. Were too intellectual for painting: Its just a false thing on a two-dimensional plane. Well, I maintain that we havent even started exploring it, because of our inhibitions and the social matrix were locked into. Painting has got an enormous, enormous future. But we need a language. And that language most obviously to start off with would be cartoons. Because we can read cartoons.
This is a radical position, even in todays picture-friendly art market. Apart from its dazzling craft and brilliant storytelling, Williams work has always been remarkable for its unflinching ethical and political engagement (particularly as played out in sexual and familial contexts) and its surprising subtext of philosophical and metaphysical speculation, often regarding the possibility that parallel realities exist alongside and occasionally intersect our own. Weighty topics to address with cartoons. Or maybe not. By allowing the more outrageous aspects of his work to recede, Williams emphasizes his belief that cartooning far from being a recently invented vehicle for satirical humor is the high-water mark in the evolution of the fundamental semiotics of human visual communication. And theres a sense of urgency to ensure that this insight and legacy are passed on.
Im 62 years old and Ive lost my fight, says Williams. Im just painting and trying to make a fuckin living. I dunno. The countrys changing and getting softer, swinging to the right. You dont have that strong youth thing coming up anymore. Its not there. There isnt an underground. Unbelievably, people are talking about getting rid of evolution, and I heard on the news some senator is talking about censoring cable television. All the progress made in the 60s and 70s is just regressing back down the hole, and you dont see young people standing up for it. The struggle isnt there. And I could stand here and prophesize and talk big, but the bottom line is, Im just another asshole here, and I just want to sell these paintings and make a living and let the other people worry about it. I used to have these ideal goals of breaking the walls down and going to New York and knocking the door open with the pommel of my art sword and all that shit, but I dont know . . .
My context in this thing is that Ive taken all these un-arts and taken the beauty and the virtue and the poetry of that and tried to incorporate it into something I could pass on to someone else, that would ignite and someone else could carry it. I would hope that there are younger artists with richer imaginations who can take that language and give a larger vocabulary or syntax to it. And I think that will happen.
Its not the revolution, but it might just do.
ROBERT WILLIAMS: THROUGH PREHENSILE EYES | Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art & Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd. | Through July 30 | Opening reception Saturday, May 21, 611 p.m.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.