Appetite For Destruction – Robert Williams and the Birth of Lowbrow
A decent percentage of the art that we’ve featured on the site could fall into the category known as “Lowbrow.” Like similar semi-derogatory catch-all terms (see Krautrock), many of the artists associated with that label reject it and resent its usage, while others; like recent interviewee, Dave MacDowell, don’t really seem too concerned with how other people choose to refer to their work, one way or another. Drawing from such influences as underground comix, hot rod Kustom Kulture, tiki culture, carnival freak art/banners, pulp magazine covers, Mad Magazine, tattoos, and B movies, lowbrow has come to represent a mixed bag of, generally sub-culture-based, visual artwork that was never considered valid or respectable enough to be showcased in fine art galleries and higher end establishments. As the movement has grown, there are some common threads between artists, but there is also some debate about what exactly “lowbrow” encompasses and where/if the line between psychedelic, illusionistic, pop-surrealist paintings and the rest of the work exists. And the movement has grown, with more and more galleries becoming available to showcase the work, along with the pool of artists who create it. Whether this growth is necessarily a positive is something else that’s also been brought into question in recent years, quite notably by the very man who is credited with coining the term “lowbrow” in the first place–a man who has also come to dismiss the term himself–master painter, Robert “Robt.” Williams.
When most people hear the phrase “Appetite for Destruction” they immediately think of the 1987 debut LP for Guns N Roses. It’s likely that they’ll even think about Billy White Jr‘s now-iconic image of the Celtic cross mounted with figures of all 5 band members in skull form, which was originally designed as a tattoo for Axl Rose and ultimately became the replacement album cover art. Some folks might even remember the original banned artwork for the release, which featured the image of a futuristic robot in a trench-coat sexually assaulting a girl, as some sort of vicious, dagger-toothed, blood-red, chrome plated, mechanical, demon came spinning over a wooden fence to destroy it. Even less people will recognize that GNR‘s album actually took its name from that very painting, which was created by Robert Williams a full 9 years prior, in 1978.The year after painting Appetite For Destruction, Williams released his first book of art through Last Gasp titled, The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams. The cover also featured the painting. Inside was a sizable introduction and plenty of descriptions and insight into his thought process accompanying the images of his work. Even then, it was clear that Williams not only had amazing skill and vision, but also a passion for sharing this art and promoting similar works on a larger scale. In 1994, he would start Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine with a few partners, including Fausto Vitello and Eric Swenson (the duo behind Independent Trucks and Thrasher Magazine), which would ultimately rise to its current ranks as the most widely circulated art publication in the United States. Nobody has been more important to the growth of content or visibility in pop-surrealism and underground contemporary art than Williams, period.
Raised around a car hop-staffed drive-in restaurant that was owned by his father, who also owned a stable of stock cars, Williams was drawn to hot rod culture at an early age and, in 1965, he was hired to work on graphics and advertising for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, while in his early-twenties. A legend in his own right, Roth was a major contributor to Kustom Kulture and it’s aesthetic. Aside from his highly impressive output of custom vehicles; which contained some extremely forward thinking, and innovative body styles with immaculate pin-striping, paint work, and design–some cars even possessed tripped-out, transparent sci-fi space domes; “Big Daddy” was also a pioneer and the catalyst for a wide-spread craze with his airbrushed “Weirdo” T-Shirts that featured his monstrously gruesome trademark characters like the bug-eyed, jagged-toothed Rat Fink, tearing around in hot rods. A painter since the age of 15, Robert now had the opportunity to help influence the culture that had been influencing him, directly. His impressive ability to master such skills as emulating the effects of chrome unlike anyone else, was not only a reflection of his own inspirations, it was also a reflection of his determination to continuously work toward mastering/understanding his craft and of how his skill set would consistently continue to improve to this day, through sheer passion and invested energy. He possesses both the need and adaptability to tackle difficult and interesting new elements, and present them in new refreshing ways, as evidenced by his penchant for compartmentalizing sections of his work to represent such concepts as dreams, contemplation, lapses in time, and alternate dimensions within them.Robert’s personal work, along with the mediums and avenues that he works within, have continued to shift throughout his career as well. The end of the 60s found Williams joining Robert Crumb‘s fledgling Zap Comix as part of what would become a highly impressive roster of meticulously detailed innovators that included S. Clay Wilson; “Spain” Rodriguez; Gilbert Shelton (creator of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) and, psychedelic poster/album cover artists, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. The popularity of underground comix grew, but they were still underground, after all, and that’s where their primary acceptance remained. Oil painting has been a constant in Williams‘ life throughout, but his unsavory and often hedonistic subject matter wasn’t going to be embraced by the “fine art” world. His skills are, and were, undeniable, yet they were consistently denied by an establishment whose minds had become more and more rigid and stagnant.
Controversial, French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp spat in the face of the art world and it’s standards back in 1919 with his “ready-made“, titled L.H.O.O.Q, which involved him scrawling a goatee onto a postcard of The Mona Lisa. Warhol was somehow infiltrating the straight world with his own satirical take on art and culture in the Sixties, but Williams and his crew just weren’t going to get the same welcoming. Perhaps Warhol‘s acceptance actually stemmed from his questionable skill set, rather than in spite of it, and that was the major difference that separated him from the meticulously detailed illustrative style of the underground comix crowd, since their time periods did coincide. As for Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q was an implied vandalism and rejection of an incredibly famous and realistically rendered image. Through the Sixties and up through the 80s, there was a growing affinity for conceptualist, performance, and minimalist art, coupled with somewhat of a disdain for highly skilled realism, which was considered elitist and bourgeoisie. But, like Tom Robbins asks in his novel Still Life With Woodpecker, “who will control those who control those who control” (I think that’s the quote?), referring to the idea that, once the oppressed overthrow the oppressors, they, in turn, often inherit that role as oppressors themselves.
The conceptual art movement finds its highly subversive origins credited to Duchamp as well, and, more specifically, with the artist’s 1917 sculpture of a urinal titled “Fountain.” But, regardless of it’s roots as an artform founded on the promotion of ideas and energy over aesthetics and the final manifested products that they yielded, conceptualism and minimalism had gained a dominance and, the aesthetics are what forced Williams, Crumb, Wilson, and the rest to remain slightly off of the grid. Their understanding of their craft and the level of skill and the detailed precision at which they pursued it was an unfortunate, and somewhat unjustified, strike against them. They were now the subversives and the fact that their content was so appallingly… well, subversive, is what compelled the, arguably, misguided art world to ignore them. For whatever reason, the powers that be must have believed that holding onto a formula that was becoming structurally outdated and restrictive, in it’s own right, would still make them cutting edge, revolutionary, and groundbreaking. In reality, minimalism, and especially conceptualism, have demonstrated a potential to birth some of the most pretentious results in the history of art, and to elevate the ideas of what does and does not constitute “art” even higher up and away from the common people more than ever. They were supposed to be representing the work of the soul, when the soul had become increasingly absent, but now the passion that Wilson and his cohorts were bringing was being ignored for stylistic reasons. It’s hard to deny the serious passion of someone whose schedule long consisted of waking up at around 4:15 am and painting day-after-day-after-day away, on end, but that reality didn’t seem to be getting Robert anywhere; at least not into any fine art establishments.When punk hit in the Seventies, Wilson had finally found his outlet. Interestingly enough, the punk movement was embracing an attitude very similar to that of the Dadaists; one of “I don’t give a fuck! Just because I have absolutely no understanding of how to play an instrument and possibly no skill to do it, that’s not gonna stop me from starting a band, recording, and embarking on a musical career.” The painter finally had his audience; an audience that welcomed dismemberment, crude sexual representation, and all out destruction. Wilson was able to find venues like after hours clubs to showcase his work and, while he began to pump a lot of his material out at a much quicker rate than before, he was selling those paintings by the fuck load. Even a less detailed Robt. Wilson is still a lot more detailed than the work of most others. Perhaps even due to their quick production, this work was infused with a high energy, emotional resonance, and was full of reckless abandon. When his 1979 artbook, The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams was released, the title was more of a reflection on how his work had always been treated and labeled. There wasn’t as much of an intention to create “inappropriate” artwork as there was a complete lack of concern as to whether people would be offended by it or not. He wasn’t going to cater to the potentially uptight, conventional sensibilities of others or restrict himself from the freedom to create what he envisioned. Who was anyone else to tell him how to create his art?
This fight for a voice for himself and for his contemporaries has carried Wilson into the present day, through the ambitious launching of Juxtapoz magazine in 1994 and to his current foray into casting his trademark, over-the-top visions into massive 3-dimensional sculptures, and partaking in the occasional public speaking engagement. No one individual more than “Robt.” Williams can be credited with giving the “lowbrow” movement a place in contemporary art, even if he himself would rather replace that term with “Conceptual Realism” or, any number of other possible descriptors. Still, Williams has been open about his concerns that, with a greater and broader acceptance, even this formerly-rebellious art form that he pioneered has fallen victim to some of the same downfalls as those that came before it. In the 2005 book Weirdo Deluxe: The Wild World of Pop Surrealism & Lowbrow Art by Matt Dukes Jordan, Wilson sounds almost resentful when he says, “I caught all the fire and opened up the territory for everyone else. Now a lot of people are in this thing because it’s here, it’s a ride and they couldn’t come up with a ride of their own.” He then follows with, “They’re working this thing until they can jump off of it. Maybe I am too. I think this thing will get more and more diluted. People will follow success.” But as he continues, it’s clear that, while he has mixed feelings on the current state of the world that he helped birth, his concerns aren’t with gaining any individual recognition or praise–he gets plenty of that, already–but rather with maintaining credibility in the work at large. His mentioning of the obstacles that he’s battled through–angry feminists, cultural acceptance, etc– are there to highlight that there was clearly a strong belief behind his mission to pave a path for everyone else to be able to reap the benefits from, even in the face of such opposition, but what many of the artists are doing with that freedom has become a disappointment for him. It also raises the question about the importance of resistance and struggle in relation to the vitality, or lack thereof, in the art and the process in which it’s created.A similar parallel could be drawn to rap music, wherein the importance of originality is no longer promoted as essential or even met with respect, and there is now an easily imitatible, homogenized formula that, by definition, wasn’t as definable during it’s growth period. Theft is not only prevalent in these respective fields, but almost expected, because, now that there’s a “movement” that people are intentionally aiming to become apart of, the easiest way for them to achieve that goal is to siphon elements of the style that they have been shown defines it. True originality, on the other hand, defies categorization, but that’s a concept that is actually detrimental and in opposition to those seeking acceptance and validation through some level of categorization. For Williams, the entire idea of creating something simply to appeal to a demographic or for mass appeal is completely against the entire foundation of the lowbrow movement and what it stands for. Creating with the intent of marketing isn’t supposed to be part of the equation. Over the years, Juxtapoz itself has broadened it’s focus to include a wider array of content, such as graffiti and street art, but while that more open door policy and their tendency to over-stuff each issue with an unprecedented amount of content and showcased artists allows them to locate and present more and more diamonds, it’s also ushered in more of the metaphorical “rough” at times. In other words, the quality control is being increasingly compromised throughout the community, all around, whether it pertains to gallery curation or otherwise.
With all of that being said, Williams is still hopeful–or at least he was back in 2005. “…there are still very intelligent people doing intelligent work because the area that we’re in is so fertile and rich. I think that more intelligent things are coming out of our movement than any other art movement.” And that’s probably true, because, if part of the loose lowbrow framework is defined by the rejected and the underground, the pool to draw from will never be depleted. Even if “lowbrow” continues to become the “alternative music” of the art world, there will always be an underground somewhere that’s developing untouched. As for the guys who have been in the game for a long time now, plenty of them are still producing very relevant work. People like Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Ron English, and Wilson himself (aka the guys to steal from) have managed to retain their extremely identifiable, trademark styles while continuing to contribute astonishingly consistent work to the pop-surrealist/lowbrow world. The pool isn’t completely depleted yet. As for the slightly younger set, my hope is that the work of such brilliant and inspiring artists as James Jean, Jeremy Geddes, and Jeff Soto has made Williams feel validated in his claims that quality, “intelligent” work is still being produced throughout the movement.
We are not strictly a visual art site, but I will do my part to try and continue to offer another platform for this type of work, even if it’s, admittedly, sporadic. Before writing this article, it hit me that, although we’ve showcased and supported plenty of lowbrow/pop-surrealist/underground contemporary work, in the past, we’ve never really spoken much about Williams. That’s a reality that is both understandable and borderline-unforgivable, for the exact same reason. With such an important, major figure, it’s easy to assume that covering him would only be redundant, but as a site with one of it’s primary principles being to try and avoid pretentiousness by being as informative as possible, never assuming that the reader has a previous history with any of the subject matter, it was a realization and oversight that bothered me. Hopefully, those of you who were familiar with Robert Williams beforehand have found something of worth in this writeup. For those of you who weren’t, perhaps you’ve discovered the work of a brand new artist, or even an entire genre of art, that you feel is now worth exploring. Have fun sifting through it all, but make sure to take the occasional break or risk your mind congealing into a psychedelic jello mold– there’s a lot of it.