Return to Articles


May 21 - July 30, 2005 at Otis College, Ben Maltz Gallery, West Side

by Mat Gleason

“Minotaur-On-High as Witnessed by
His Antediluvian Retainers,” 1998,
oil on canvas, 40 x 30”.

“The Smile Disseminator,”
2002, oil on canvas, 40 x 30”.

“Galahad and Lancelot,”
2003, oil on canvas, 24 x 20”.

“In the Pavilion of the Red Clown,”
2001, oil on canvas, 30 x 36”.
Some artists carve a path of independence amidst the confining tendencies of the greater art world. Robert Williams has constructed a superhighway. His hallucinatory landscapes are the logical American heir to the surrealist movement in general, and approach the iconic status of its Spanish master Salvador Dali--still one of the most recognized artists worldwide despite elitist attempts to scour away his talent, accomplishments and legacy.

As Dali ran afoul of the art market economy with a smiling apathy toward the sale of forgeries of his prints, so too does a rambunctious Williams thumb his nose at the fetish for narrowcasting among today’s contemporary institutional visual arts powers that be. Williams’ deep involvement in the inclusive publication “Juxtapoz” runs counter to the impulse of institutions to weed out artists on the periphery in order to clean up their stale stories of art history.

Williams’ American surrealist paintings are layered and frenzied landscapes populated with wickedly absurd pathologies masquerading as characters allegorically dancing in nightmare imagery for our delight or repulsion. His beginnings in the world of hot rods and comic books provide a street credibility that functions as an insurance policy toward his reputation: his detailed, labor intensive, hard-hitting work can never be too neatly ensconced in an art history that lauds the ephemeral doodles of the cultural elite; yet the deans of the ultimate leisure class cannot ignore the millions of dollars that his paintings have earned him, nor the status they bequeath. So which of these is the most offensive to the establishment: Williams’ success as an artist? The accessibility of his imagery? His tendency to render heroic outlaw behavior as a logic inherent in the human animal? Or is it his equally deep devotion to the craft of painting and the science of perfect (yet inspired) rendering? Opposing Williams casts one onto a shrinking august island of pure theoretical propositions. While some of the elite drown in dialogue, other art powerbrokers are scrambling for dry land and embracing a Robert Williams they can neither seduce, contain nor control.

With the opening of his “Through Prehensile Eyes” survey show at this very establishment venue, the art world comes crawling again, late to the party, desperate to re-legitimize itself through the talents of a genius in their midst. Otis’ literature for the exhibition makes a wild stretch in codifying Williams’ talent through acceptable art world channels, noting his inclusion in Paul Schimmel’s “Helter Skelter” exhibit (at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary a decade back) and lumping Williams in with half-talented academy-approved conceptual rebels like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. A tsunami of talent such as Williams can make people do strange things.

The energy of Williams’ art can barely be contained by its physical frames, let alone the ripple-free sanctuary of fine art’s canon. While this exhibit is a fabulous opportunity for viewers to immerse themselves in the universe of one of our most imaginative draftsmen, the pleasant codification of rebellion symbolized by this exhibition should cast a suspicious eye towards an academy more confused than ever about its role in the messy democracy of art.