Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe
It’s a slang thang, a vernacular spectacular from the high priest of lowbrow, Robert Williams, the top exec of Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, “Big Daddy” Roth’s Art Director, and an outstanding Zap Comix original. Williams’s wild and wooly imagination is matched only by his mad skills as an oil painter. Call it Pop Surrealism or whatever you want, but this outlaw artist (and custom car creator) is on par with Hogarth, Bruegel, or Bosch when it comes to wealth of wit, engaging detail, and hallucinatory illusion.
In Purple as an Inexplicable Poetic Force we witness the encounter between a violet-skinned, statuesque woman dressed in Prince’s favorite tone (a purple pause please) and the monstrous embodiment of mauve as our lady resists its multi-tentacled advances—for now. Leaving no stop unpulled, either in craft or conception, gives Williams’s paintings a sense of both frozen eternity and animated movement. The near absence of visible brushwork means one falls headlong into his now-classic cartoon naturalism, and the abundance of fine detail leaves us looking longer, seduced into the purple prose and poetry of a perilously perfect world.
That we might go down with the lowbrow, or somehow drown in the wrong kind of imagery, or fall under the influence of savage artists and the truths they make visible, is a long-standing fear within western culture. From the Judaic second commandment restricting graven images to Plato’s model Republic that exiles artists as “rabble rousers,” we see a tendency to regard unchecked creativity and artistic freedom with philosophical reservations.
Figurative imagery, especially of human bodies, has been under siege throughout time, in multiple contexts. From the Byzantine iconoclasm as a form of class warfare, to the Modernist conception of Dada/Surrealism as less than non-referential abstraction, to the CIA-supported shift to pure formalism as vocalized by critic Clement Greenberg (as opposed to Soviet Realism) at the end of World War II: so it goes.
That we might go down with the lowbrow, or somehow drown in the wrong kind of imagery, or fall under the influence of savage artists and the truths they make visible, is a long-standing fear within western culture.
With the advent of AbEx, the referential image went into the pages of advertising illustrations and, more creatively, into comic books and animated cartoons. To members of Williams’s generation, these sacred texts held a special visual language—the bizarro love child of Florid Baroque naturalism and the supremely distortilating (does that word seem oddly elongated, or is my nose just happy to smell you?) stylization of the American comic strip. Their love of visual hyperbole and drama was what drew them together, and their offspring grew up to be R. Crumb, Peter Saul, Philip Guston, Elizabeth Murray, Ida Applebroog, and all those who have so successfully positioned comic strip forms and stylized referential imagery in the blue chip art sphere.
The Decline of Sophistication, one of the largest pieces in CCA’s grand Muñoz Waxman gallery satirizes the age-old topic of the death of taste (one of Hogarth’s favorite subjects) while coyly allegorizing Juxtapoz’s ascendancy over the rest of the art mag market shortly after its inception in 1994. The work is conceived through a mystical apple pie Eucharist ethereally consumed by the grim reaper, a series of cartoon grotesques, and a woman who is embraced from behind by her handsome paramour. Said metaphysical consumption naturally exposes the façade of sophistication for what it is, an ornate architectural entry to a cheap circus tent burning with the noxious green fumes of pseudo- intellectualism that forms the cloudy ground of everyday lust. Have I mentioned Williams has got the whackadizzifying imagination on lock? Or the Duchampian elements?
Poet, anti-priest, Hogarthian parodist, Kulture worker, great painter, and pictorial polemicist extraordinaire, Robert Williams and curator Meg Linton’s powerful Slang Aesthetics! is, in summary, wicked hella cool.