Slang Aesthetics: Robert Williams and the Nexus of Pop Surrealism

Pathos in Papier-mâché by Robert Williams
"Pathos in Papier-mâché" by Robert Williams

Few artists have had the cultural reach of Robert Williams. Los Angeles-based and proudly rebellious, Williams has consistently stuck a chord with youth-centric subcultures that have sprouted from Southern California since the mid-20th century. He got his start working for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, keeping him forever tied to custom car culture. He was part of the team behind Zap Comix, the underground imprint tied to the counterculture of the 1960s. A decade or so later, when punk hit Los Angeles, Williams was a part of that too, showing his work at after-hours events.

Williams spent decades sewing the seeds of art revolution among the groups that the high-brow world ignored. Hot rod enthusiasts, skaters, suffers, bikers, hippies and punks have long bean his people. By the time Williams co-founded Juxtapoz in the mid-1990s, all these influences had come together to impact a large and healthy community of artists who similarly found their voices in representational art with strong narrative elements. "The art talks to you and it talks to you in a voice that has been inadvertently silenced for almost 70 years," says Williams inside his home library.

Inside Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park, Williams' solo show "Slang Aesthetics!" takes up the larges spaces at the center of the venue. An expansive collection of works, the show includes paintings, drawings, prints and two mammoth statues. Framing the exhibition is the concurrent show, "20 Years Under the Influence of Juxtapoz," a collection of artists affiliated with the styles that the magazine has long championed. Featuring works by Shag, Natalia Fabia, Elizabeth McGrath and many others, it's a who's-who of the movement often referenced as pop surrealism.

"Decline of Sophistication" by Robert Williams
"Decline of Sophistication" by Robert Williams

In the early 1960s, when Williams was an art student and new to Los Angeles, this gallery hosted a show from the surrealist Salvador Dalí. He saw the show multiple times. At that time, art like Dalí's had fallen out of fashion. Abstract expressionism was the rage. In the school setting, Williams' own work was at odds with what was being taught. "I was just told that drawing was for people that were not sophisticated," he says, 'that representational art was for people that didn't have the sophistication or the inclination to understand that two-dimensional art is far-superior." After moving to Los Angeles from New Mexico, Williams attended Los Angeles City College, where he landed a gig as the cartoonist for the school newspaper. Later, he attended Chouinard, which became CalArts, but didn't graduate.

Academics may not have appreciated Williams' style, but he was still able to thrive in California's art climate. "California has this interesting situation where it's orthodox, proper art world seeks sophistication, like every other art community in the United States, and looks toward New York," says Williams, "but, by the time that cultural arm reaches to the West Coast, the sophistications got mutated and twisted."

That delayed reaction that happened when East Coast trends traveled West was, in a way, helpful for Williams. "You have an accidental freedom on the West Coast," he says.

Indeed, Williams taps into that freedom in his art. Take "Swap Meet Sally," from his current show. The titular character reclines under an umbrella, t-shirt hiked above her navel, long legs exposed below the hem of her short-shorts. Surrounding her are a variety of odds and ends-- a guitar, a pair of cowboy booths, some hats, a scuba helmet that looks as though it came out of an H.G. Wells story. Above her, a green, naked woman is sprawled out on some psychedelic, cash-colored cloud.

Artwork by Robert Williams
Artwork by Robert Williams

"The wonderful thing about swap meets is that you can develop a taste for something that the general public hasn't decided to light on to," says Williams inside his home library. He mentions antiques that haven't quite made an impact on the secondary market, but might do so in a few years time-- "It's a prospector and a treasure hunter's dream." It's a scene that seemingly belongs to Southern California, where swap meets have long been part of the sprawl.

Then there's "Hollywood After Midnight," with images of Satan popping out from a nighttime view of the neighborhood. Williams' description posted next to the painting weaves a sordid tale of the devil as someone looking for a big break in an industry that's by and large situated outside of Hollywood's boundaries.

As a child, Williams was heavily influenced by EC Comics, the publisher of titles like "Tales from the Crypt" that angered adults nationwide, triggering the Senate Subcommittee Hearing into Juvenile Delinquency and the founding of the Comics Code Authority. "It was just like catnip to me," he says. "And, they were right, it did poison the youth, because I'm a testimony to it."

Williams has always stood out as defiant. "My stuff, if you look at it, and you look at it psychologically, it's contrary to our social mores," he says. "It's outlaw art, maybe tamed down a little bit." Zap Comix was notorious in its day; Williams notes the booksellers who were arrested for carrying the works. Long after that, Williams continued to ruffle feathers. In 1992, MOCA hosted the exhibition "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" and Williams was part of that show. He pulls out a monograph to show a painting that appeared in that exhibition. In it, Mata Hari stands above the Crown Prince of Prussia and the French Minister of War, both of whom have their respective country's flags waving from their behinds as they lick her feet. In another corner, Williams depicts the carnage of World War I, right under an Eiffel Tower let up by messages that Mata Hari was passing along to the Germans. Up at the top of the painting, Mata Hari sits naked on a white horse, a reference to an anecdote from Gertrude Stein.


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Artwork by Robert Williams
Artwork by Robert Williams

"It's a lurid painting and it upset a lot of people at the Helter Skelter show, but I'm proud of it," he says.

Williams' work is particular to the era in which he came up as an artist. "This thing started out as an extreme underground art movement and, as more people involve themselves in it, the more it will dilute out into acceptability," he says. "It started out almost on the edge of sedition; there was a lot of pornography and questionable material. I just assumed it stay that way, but that's passed. The underground is long, long dead. Those are the days of Zap Comix."

Yet, there are some things that remain. "What has survived is a zeitgeist and an intensity of interests that young people have picked up on," he says. That has, and will continue, to change the art world.

"The world I function in is a world of all these bastardized forms of art that are eventually going to assimilate into one or two forms of formal art," he says. "That's just going to happen. The bottom always comes to the top in art. Always."

Williams adds, "The question is, am I going to live long enough to bear the fruits of this? The genie is out of the box."



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