(1) "A Hair in the Soup", o/c
(2) "The Surrealist Nude Quiche Cadaver Recining",
(3) "The Mad Surgeon's Species-Mixing Obbligato"
(4) "Nostradomus and the Astrological Planet Skinner"
by Jody Zellen
Tamara Bane Gallery, West Hollywood) Visions in the Vernacular is an exhibition of 16 paintings by Robert Williams that continue his investigations into a surreal world where the real and the imaginary collide. Williams is well known for cartoonish works that fuse low brow culture and high art, commenting on aspects of both.
He began his artistic career in the 1960's, working as an art director for Ed (Big Daddy) Roth. His interest in both comic books and car culture led him to Los Angeles, where he fell in with others who shared his visual sensibilities. Soon not only was he producing hot rod cars and comic books, but he was immersed in a world that propagated that culture.
Williams may be an illustrator and comic book artist, but he is equally interested in making paintings. For Williams painting is another form of expression: "I have to deal in anxieties, harsh contrasts and attention-getting devices that seem cheap and sensational. That's the way a comic book is, and that's the way my art is." These illustrative narratives carry the viewer on a surreal journey. They are structured as vignettes where many things happen in sequence creating a story within the frame. For example, in The Hair in the Soup, the foreground image realistically depicts a man's hand holding a soup spoon in a bowl of reddish soup. The hand lifts a mysterious hair out of the liquid (as highlighted by the green arrow with the white question mark). In the upper left hand side of the frame the man points out the alien object in his soup to the waiter. On the upper right side of the painting sits a grotesque bug-like creature. The "pedantic official academic title" of this painting states: Legal Action has been Based on Laboratory Reports Concluding that Mr. Colos-tameyer's Gazpacho was Indeed Contaminated with a Hair from a Bristle-Backed Dromedary Rocky Mountain Outhouse Spider with Elephantaitis of an Impacted Web Duct. Perhaps this offers some insight into the image, but what it tells us is superfluous to the the visual reading of the work. Williams draws from personal history as well as from popular culture. As has been the case for years the subjects continue to include hot rod cars, Disney-esque animals, naked women and threatening monsters. He combines these elements into humorous yet cutting compositions.
All are given three titles that, according to Williams, are: 1) a descriptive title; 2) a long pedantic official academic title; and 3) the colloquial pool-room title (the snide dirty color ful title). One of the largest paintings, to illustrate this scheme, is 1) The Surrealist Nude Quiche Cadaver Reclining, 2) The Ghost of Posthumous Geniuses Congregate in the Presence of the Collapsed Mush-Like Persona of the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, Which has Gushed out onto the Paris Street from the Artist's Cafe After it had been Determined that not one Member, by Definition of the Manifesto, was a True Surrealist, and 3) What Part of a Dog Turd Isn't A Dadaist Masterpiece? In it Williams carefully paints recognizable figures and images from the history of art. If artists such as René Magritte, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and André Breton and their works are not truly surreal then what is? Williams? And Williams' paintings?
Robert Williams straddles two worlds, that of low brow culture and the world of fine art, and wants to be recognized in both. His paintings certainly are fine art, but art linked to popular culture and the comic book style. Many artists, including Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley, who are recognized in high art circles, have mentioned Williams as an influence. Yet Williams' work is usually associated with artists like R. Crumb and Big Daddy Roth.
Williams' paintings are evocative and shocking; they are colorful and snazzy, and immediately invite you in. How a viewer reacts is another story. Some will be disgusted by these images. Others will find them humorous. Whatever one's take on Williams' work, however, their is no argument that he is a master at what he does--creating far fetched narratives that challenge the imagination and send viewers spinning off the road.