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 world’s nest once more, is what. The instigator of the Lowbrow Art movement — art director for “Big Daddy” Roth’s studio, contributor to Zap Comix, co-founder of Juxtapoz magazine — has shown at such venues as Cal State Fullerton’s 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 & Design’s 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 MOCA’s 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 — there’s the plein air world,
for example, or I have this friend who’s an amazing wildlife artist, and she gets
$25,000 for one of her paintings, but it’s something we wouldn’t 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 — it’s all the same
with the individual artists. There are all these parallel worlds, and it’s hard
to say that one is more valid than the other.”
Irene Interfacing with an Astro
Dynamic Epiphany (2003);
Pansy Gatherers at
Myrtlewood Dale (2001)
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 it’s 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 wasn’t 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 Shafrazi’s 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 painting’s potential.
“You’ve 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. ‘Painting’s over, painting’s dead. We’re too intellectual for painting: It’s just a false thing on a two-dimensional plane.’ Well, I maintain that we haven’t even started exploring it, because of our inhibitions and the social matrix we’re 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 today’s 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 there’s a sense of urgency to ensure that this insight and legacy are passed on.
“I’m 62 years old and I’ve lost my fight,” says Williams. “I’m just painting and trying to make a fuckin’ living. I dunno. The country’s changing and getting softer, swinging to the right. You don’t have that strong youth thing coming up anymore. It’s not there. There isn’t 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 don’t see young people standing up for it. The struggle isn’t there. And I could stand here and prophesize and talk big, but the bottom line is, I’m 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 don’t know . . .
“My context in this thing is that I’ve 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.”
It’s 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, 6–11 p.m.