What kind of guy paints death-camp corpses, bloody monkeys, defecating kings and splayed-leg nudes--and that’s the newer, tamer stuff--with all the chaos of a high-speed freeway chase?
That would be artist Robert Williams, who, despite his imagined reputation as a smack-addicted rocker and predator of “underage schoolboys and select barnyard animals,” is downright civilized, an adoring husband of 34 years.
But “just like you,” Williams says, his mind festers with images of real and unreal horrors--evil despots, car wrecks, nightmarish monsters--and such unmentionables as sexual desires and things scatological. He thinks road kill captures the eye and imagination more effectively than “100 Mona Lisas.”
“The idea is that [the work] stimulates your libido and gives you an energy charge,” he says, “it’s not endorsing anything.”
It’s obviously not about pleasing everybody, either. Yet the co-founder of the underground Zap Comix, whose work goes on view Sunday in Huntington Beach, has had a large following for three decades and has won recognition within the “high” art world, most notably in a major 1992 group show at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.
“His paintings, however wild, hilarious and vulgar,” writes Walter Hopps, director of Houston’s prestigious Menil Collection museum, in a new book about Williams’ work, “have become a part of the admirable art of our time.”
A week before his first institutional solo show in Southern California, where he’s lived since 1971, Williams discussed the personal and social developments that shape his art, the intent of its allegories, and the relentless criticism that’s compelled him to tone things down a bit, particularly in the new 18-piece suite on view in Huntington Beach.
“I’m continually beat on all the time,” the 54-year-old artist says.
An Albuquerque native, Williams spent much of his youth on the streets, landing in jail for aggravated assault, theft and other crimes, and made a buck off an array of odd jobs, from carny to sign painter.
Always graphically inclined, he eventually found his way to the art department at Los Angeles City College, then spent a year at Chouinard Arts Institute (now Cal Arts in Santa Clarita). He didn’t find his niche until hooking up with such renegade comic-book artists as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth--father of the slobbering, hot-rodding Rat Fink--and R. Crumb, with whom he and six others founded the scabrous Zap in 1969.
The gratuitous sex and violence Williams happily crafted for Zap distinguished the oils he displayed in an early L.A. gallery show in 1982. These “Zombie Mystery” paintings took lowbrow to a new high, he says.
“I’d been painting questionable subject matter, but nothing so overtly brutal, with severed limbs, festered vaginas and decapitations, in really violent colors that clashed harshly like pink against dark green.”
That imagery has no connection to the acid dropped in the ‘60s or childhood trauma. “No, no, it’s not like a deep psychic thing, it’s all very surface,’ Williams says, knifing a thick steak at a noisy L.A. restaurant.
Instead, it stems from cheesy monster movies, lurid comic books, “which poisoned me as they said they would,” a lot of testosterone, and, above all, the ‘80s punk rock movement.
“The whole atmosphere of the time was like Berlin during the Weimar Republic,” the artist says. “There was a tremendous energetic decadence and there’s never been an American art [style] like that: Anything you could think of, you could do!”
Williams’ next two series of works--"social detritus,” he says--stayed the course: the hideous eyeballs of a bodiless man rocket out of their sockets toward a nude, buxom blond reclining atop a cheeseburger; a pimply monster with a bloody dagger waits by the roadside to slash the appendage of a kid riding the family sedan with his arm out the window.
“But you can’t just write it off as yucky, bloody stuff,” he says, “because the paintings use anxiety and uncomfortable situations to create energy and they have story structure, composition.”
The narratives became more complex in tandem with his desire to present thought-provoking “visual essays,” drawing upon abstraction as well as figuration, that examine such topics as class divisiveness, cultural taboos, cosmology and history.
A massive, 4-by-8 foot painting in MOCA’s 1992 “Helter Skelter” show portrays the real-life 1882 lecture visit Oscar Wilde made to a Colorado mining town. It’s replete with a detail of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” the drunken gunslingers, pimps and harlots whom his art lecture failed to fully impress, and Wilde in stockings and coattails.
He and other artists, including Mike Kelley, Llyn Foulkes and Chris Burden, in that show “found a path between allegory and expression” marked by “psychological alienation, dispossession and disorder,” wrote its curator, Paul Schimmel.
But critics slammed Williams’ works; one called them the exhibit’s “nadir.” The paintings also triggered protest letters lamenting misogynistic images and an anti-gay slant in the Wilde piece, with its winged fairies and title reference to “a Syphilitic Lily Sniffer” and “Sodomite.” The artist and other observers dismiss those complaints.
The idea of the Wilde piece was to convey the social opposition the author faced in England (where he was jailed for sodomy) and probably in Colorado, Williams explains. He doesn’t apologize for painting voluptuous nudes, and his violence victimizes men and women equally, he says. In fact, the painter often depicts women as the more powerful sex.
“He has them win out,” says Huntington Beach Art Center curator Tyler Stallings, who helped organize the show that premiered at New York’s Tony Shifrazi Gallery in December.
Still, persistent criticism (including hate mail and death threats) from viewers, gallery owners and critics prompted a somewhat tamer approach, Williams says.
His newest paintings feature Hitler as Satan bulldozing corpses and noisome monsters, but little X-rated sex or bloody human flesh. A centerpiece of the new show, “The Four Seasons as Seen Through the Eyes of Jessica’s Sock Monkey,” finds the sock doll merely blown apart by wind. Another, “Infinite Einsteins and the Equation for the Inside Out Maiden,” wherein a woman’s guts and organs are exposed, highlights his kinder, gentler color scheme.
“I did this in monochromatic blue, because if I did it in red, it would have been horrifying,” Williams says, adding that the once-deployed shock value would detract from his narratives.
“When the stuff starts taking away from what I want to say, see . . . “
The changes come as a contented, graying Williams believes he’s achieved long-sought goals. Some of the art establishment may sniff, but he’s represented by respected galleries and his paintings can command $60,000 from collectors. Among those wait-listed are Nicolas Cage and close family friend Leonardo DiCaprio, whom he visited on the “Titanic” set.
Still, he seems wistful about the distance from his brazenly outre days.
“When I look at that “Zombie Mystery” stuff,” Williams says, breaking into an excited whine, “it looks so good, so vibrant, and I think how can a guy have ever done that?”
* “Robert Williams: New Work” runs Sunday through April 12 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650. Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday, noon-6 p.m.; Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m. $2-$3. Next Saturday, Williams will talk from 2-3 p.m., then sign his new retrospective book, “Malicious Resplendence.”