Los Angeles

Robert Williams

Tamara Bane Gallery

As the war between high and low culture wages on, Robert Williams, a former decal and comix artist turned easel painter, continues to assault his viewer’s eyeballs relentlessly. Cerebrally, one is bound, gagged, beaten, and cut to ribbons by these meticulously rendered full-color deliriums. Indeed, the works are so visceral that one half expects a grisly soundtrack of heckling, shrieks, and flesh chewing. It would seem virtually impossible to accommodate this material without a certain distance and not be rendered dysfunctional.

Since the obscene rears its head everywhere in these psychotic nightmares, it’s beside the point to try to sort out the “gratuitous sex and violence” from more artistically purposive carnage. In any case the “G.S. & V.” complaint is voiced to scold artists who explore the ecstasies of cruelty and abandon; the conflict is between those who are compelled to break down and assemble volatile materials versus those wishing to extinguish these contents, or to acknowledge them only to enforce hypocritical morals.

Williams’ vocabulary is constant: animals, funny cars, the American family, pirates, Martians, biblical figures, and the most original evil cartoon characters in existence. His fondness for naked vixens who recline, straddle, and squat as pinup caricatures sets him up for accusations of misogyny, yet these exaggeratedly sexual figures leer back at the viewer over heavily rouged cheeks, mocking their prudish sisters’ roles in selling tools, food, and books. Indeed, Williams’ nude women have everything to do with mocking the language and provocations of advertising. Williams is obsessed with the expressiveness of butt cracks. He paints them with deep dark ridges to the point where the two cheeks grin back in tandem. His men are always goons: cowed, shrunken, or fighting among themselves.

The Face that Moves Fire Hydrants (all works 1989–90), a standard Williams narrative, goes something like this: the vortex pattern on the bottom of a ferocious teenager’s skateboard unfurls into a filmic animation ribbon that curves onto the cellular brain glop of a gleeful fanged monster. The beast reeks of having committed innumerable sordid crimes. Fire hydrants, mailboxes, and parking meters run for cover, and Mother hears the news in a photo insert. The voice on the phone recounts the violence of a truck squashing a boy (ankles, sneakers, and a spray of skull and cross bones). Williams’ paintings go far beyond the overblown and hideous, arriving at an odd and preposterous truth. His gruesome fantasies run rampant like psychotic thoughts, tapping into the lust and fear that seethe just beneath the wallpaper-thin veneer of everyday civility.

Benjamin Weissman