The name Robt. Williams is synonymous with the pop surrealim/underground contemporary/low brow art movement, which has exponentially snowballed in popularity over the last couple of decades. In fact, although he hasn’t expressed too much favor toward the label and would seem to prefer having something along the lines of “conceptual realism” be adopted in reference to his work, Williams is actually credited as being the one to coin the term “low brow,” with the release of his 1979 book, The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams, a tongue-in-cheek title addressing the way he’d been consistently turned away from the mainstream aka “high brow” fine art world, throughout his career, in essence, for being too technically sound and capable in his craft. As we addressed in our 2013 piece on Robert, Appetite For Destruction – Robert Williams And The Birth Of Lowbrow, in much more detail than I will attempt to enter into in this post, with abstract expressionism and conceptual art being embraced so heavily, in conjunction with the idea that technical ability and realism weren’t as high minded approaches, his brilliant and, otherwise, enviable ability to recreate complex textures — he is the master of painting chrome, specifically — and impart his paintings with mind boggling detail, more so than not, functioned as a strike against him. When blended with his subversive, sometimes “crude,” subject matter, Williams had very little hope of finding a home anywhere other than the alternative art circuit. Fortunately for us, the California artist appears to have gotten that old adage of “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” entirely backwards.
Beginning his career in the world of hot rods and Kustom Kulture working for the already established Ed “Big Daddy” Roth of Rat Fink fame in 1965, Williams‘s story unfolded with him finding himself at the forefront of the underground comix movement, as part of R. Crumb‘s ZAP Comix crew, by the end of the decade. During the Seventies, Robt. discovered that, if he painted quicker and gave the people the surrealistic chaos and vulgarity that they wanted, and which he was happy to provide, he could support himself by selling work to the punk rock crowd. But no matter how he moved forward throughout his career, he would continue to move against the tide, while devoting the majority of his waking hours to practicing his craft meticulously and getting disdain for it in return. And while there was a certain demographic that couldn’t help but be drawn to his work — the title and original cover of Guns N Roses 1987 debut LP were borrowed from his 1978 painting “Appetite For Destruction” — there were very little, if any, real platforms to showcase the work of underground artists like himself. To remedy this, Williams co-founded JUXTAPOZ Art & Culture Magazine in 1994, which started off shining a spotlight on the Kustom Kulture and comix scenes that he grew out of — Roth, Von Dutch and Zap Comix were all featured in the premier issue — and grew to become the highly influential powerhouse that it is now as the most widely disseminated art publication in the world, and broadening their content to showcase street art and psychedelia alongside such things as pop art and assemblage works. Not only did Williams build an outlet for those who didn’t have one, in many ways, he’s pioneered a new genre that didn’t exist before, influencing endless new artists with his work and helping to build careers with the visibility that his publication and his voice provides. People pick up paintbrushes for the first time because of Robert Williams, they see the world in a way they never have before. Galleries exist thanks to Williams. His impact is immeasurable.
This weekend a new exhibit and retrospective for Robert will open at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, running in tandem with the group exhibit, 20 Years Under The Influence of Juxtapoz, paying tribute to his publication and it’s tremendous impact on the worlds of art and culture (preview here) — the differences between art prior to Robt. Williams and after are far too dramatic to negate. One of my favorite things about Williams is how straight forward he always seems to be about acknowledging his great influence on the world, while never being entirely convinced that his impact has been 100% positive. He’s opened things up for so many to make a career out of art that was considered without value, but a natural byproduct of breaking down doors is how easy it becomes for so many others to casually stroll on through unchecked. And while it’s true that there is some grey area in that department and countless “artists” reaping the benefit of his efforts through weak and derivative works, under the guise of legitimacy, a simple look at the massive list of impressive names who count him as an influence, or at the 100+ visual wizards contributing to the JUXTAPOZ tribute show who owe elements of their careers to the man and his publication, in varying degrees, demonstrates a legacy that is undeniable. These roads don’t build themselves; first somebody has to pave them.
Check out the following information regarding Slang Aesthetics! via the press release:
The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and Juxtapoz magazine in association with Thinkspace Gallery and Copro Gallery are pleased to present new works by Robert Williams. SLANG Aesthetics! is on view at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery fromFebruary 22nd to April 19th, 2015. The exhibition is Robert Williams’ first major body of work to make its debut in Los Angeles in well over a decade, and will feature 25 new oil paintings by the artist alongside a suite of drawings, and a series of large-scale sculptures fabricated with the assistance of Gentle Giant Studios.
Robert Williams is widely upheld as the godfather of the low brow and pop surrealist art movements, and with as much frequency denigrated as an irreverent iconoclast among the arbiters of “high” art. As both patriarch and outlaw, Williams’ enduring influence on the New Contemporary movement is undeniable. A true maverick who sought to create vital work that channeled the shifting energies and immediacy of counterculture, from the 60’s onward, Williams’ paintings invoked a return to craftsmanship, figuration and demotic imagery that rejected the elitist tenets of conceptual minimalism. A kid of the 50’s, Williams grew up immersed in California’s hot rod Kustom Kulture, Rock n’ Roll and EC Comics, and was steeped in the populist currents of his era. He recognized the raw visual power of popular culture: its graphics, its counter movements and its undergrounds, a network of palpitations he would continue to tap well into the era of punk rock. He worked commercially and became studio Art Director to Kustom Kulture icon Ed “big daddy” Roth in 1965, and was a founding contributor to the underground ZAP Comix in the late 60’s, all the while creating his own caustic, unapologetic work.
The work that Williams’ created was different, and didn’t fit within the established critical and intellectual paradigms espoused by the East Coast dominated art scene. Creating epic cartoon inspired history paintings charged with sex and ultra-violence, Williams drew from the social power of the American vernacular and its visual slang. He refused the immaterial aspirations of the art object, as it moved further away from representation, and felt no affinity with the contentless legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, Williams sought idiosyncrasy, content, narrative, skillful figuration and popular culture, and created work that captured its visceral and libidinal energies through accessible references. Williams continued to disregard the arbitrary exclusions of the low from “high” culture, and in 1979 coined the term “low brow” as a way to articulate his opposition to an establishment from which he was excluded. For better or worse, “low brow” became the namesake of a young fledgling art movement, which Williams would prove to be instrumental in fostering. In 1994 Williams founded Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine and created a platform for this young and insurgent energy on the West Coast; a publication that was dedicated to the underground and to its cultural mutineers.
Williams, a self described Conceptual Realist, continues to create artworks that elicit a response and offer an opinion. Relying on concrete, and relatable, imagery to invoke ideas and concepts, rather than on the non-comital spasms of abstraction, his work continues to cut, seethe, confront and move. Not for the faint of heart, Williams speaks an unruly truth that captures the dark, the beautiful and the appalling tenor of our modern world.
Both exhibitions are sponsored in part by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery.
The invite only artist reception is this Saturday the 21st with the first public view coming the following day, but the show runs into April with a number of other really exciting related events continuing throughout. Here’s a breakdown.
Check out a selection of preview images below, after the following event details.
Curated by Andrew Hosner (Thinkspace Gallery) & Gary Pressman (Copro Gallery)
Artists Reception (invitation only)
Saturday, February 21st
First Public View
Sunday, February 22nd
(Free screening of Robt. Williams Documentary, Mr Bitchin @ 3pm)
LA Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park
4800 Hollywood Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Show runs from February 22nd – April 19th, 2015
Gallery Hours: 12-5PM, Thursday – Sunday
Showing in tandem with 20 Years Under The Influence Of JUXTAPOZ (see our perview HERE)
Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/653750664750432/
[click images to enlarge]