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Slick Tricks

Robert Williams' Newest Works, on View in Huntington Beach, Tap Vein of American Cynicism


HUNTINGTON BEACH — Offering a critical appraisal of a cult art form, be it the work of comic book-illustrator-turned-artist Robert Williams or the "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," can be self-defeating. Fans have no use for analysis, and the rest of the world is pretty indifferent. Yet the very popularity of such phenomena makes those of us on the sidelines wonder what the fuss is all about.

Williams, whose new paintings are at the Huntington Beach Art Center, long ago worked out a sure-fire formula: pumping up the average guy's feelings about sex, power, art, technology, evil and other big-ticket aspects of life into eye-popping scenarios full of zooming action and goofy details.

Using his highly polished comic book illustrator's craft, Williams easily accommodates a passing parade of cranky fantasies. Despite his slickness, he taps a deep vein of American cynicism seen in the work of such disparate writers and artists as William Burroughs and James Rosenquist.

That dark quality was the Los Angeles artist's ticket of admission to "Helter Skelter," the much debated exhibition held seven years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the sort of venue that normally disdains unironic populist art.

Williams' style is a form of carny art, reflecting both the larger-than-life fantasy world and decrepit reality of carnival side shows, bundled together in a cheerfully sleazy come-on.

His knack for cooking up worst-case scenarios in everyday life continues in "Expectorating in a Fast Food Patron's Double Burger Deluxe," with its gross grill cook and old-fashioned, self-promoting politician.

Subtlety is obviously not part of Williams' psyche. The more high-flown the theme, the more his vision stretches to the breaking point. "The Dubiety of the New Millennium" (owned by Leonardo DiCaprio) forecasts the iron grip of technology, fashion, war and the bull market. Whew, thank goodness there's nothing we don't already live with.

The 18 paintings here, all from 1997, have calmed down from the lot seen in the "Kustom Kulture" show at the Laguna Art Museum in 1993.

Art has emerged as a full-fledged theme but only in the most stereotyped way: the artist as wild-haired, palette-wielding "genius." At the same time, a strange new visual tic has surfaced: abstraction, Williams-style. "The Dog Ate My Homework in the Abstract" features not only the expected gargantuan-jawed mutt chomping on (out of date) schoolbooks, but also a mysterious flying wedge of brightly colored triangles.

Each of Williams' paintings still sports a triple bill of titles: a fairly straightforward description, a feeble spoof of the inflated vocabulary of academic writing (which Williams couldn't afford to imitate more closely, even if he had the wherewithal, because viewers would be confused instead of properly disdainful) and a crude poolroom patois.

The title gimmick has become as smoothly predictable as the style and themes of the paintings. But of course fans relish predictability, and the feeling that Williams never gets too big for his britches.

Conceptual Art

The center is also showing work by two Huntington Beach-based artists whose conceptual approach probably would inspire a sardonic riposte from Williams.

Spouses Simone Adels and Thomas LaDuke specialize in an almost-invisible art so quiet and unassuming that the ambient sound in their gallery seems unusually soft, and the visual effect is as muted as a snowy landscape.

Adels' "99 44/100%"--the reference is to the advertised purity of Ivory soap--is a small, white-painted panel with the faintest trace of a square shape drawn in gossamer graphite strokes. It takes a moment to realize it's there. In "ringed"--which glancingly recalls the work of Charles Ray--a coiled tape measure fits demurely into the wall. The markings form a series of rings, as if the measuring tool were time-based rather than spatial.

LaDuke, whose personal imprint seems more clearly defined, is showing such self-effacing pieces as "twin" (two pencil leads delicately balanced on each other) and "underside (for Simone)," a tiny pedestal-mounted piece of soap that looks uncannily like a stamp flipped over to reveal its gummy side. A sense of wonder infuses these very small sculptures, whose scale curiously magnifies their presence.

Aside from its unusual mode of presentation (on an ankle-high platform), LaDuke's "house of humor"--a perfect miniature trailer crafted from aluminum foil--hints at the very different sort of work on which he and Adels collaborate, using the alias Morgan Arden Carver.

At first glance, Carver seems to be riding the nostalgia craze, reincarnating the flavor of Saturday Evening Post covers. Indeed, there is something cloying about "Thunder," a painting of a ruddy-cheeked, bandanna-wearing laborer repairing a broken bell. But for the most part, the intimate scale of these paintings--and their nuanced brushwork, which exquisitely replicates the dull gleam of metal--saves them from vapidity.

At their best, the Carver works are not just pretty pictures. As Thomas says in an interview in the exhibition pamphlet, these pieces have more to do with Mark Tansey, the contemporary realist, than with Norman Rockwell.

Issues of power, obsolescence and extinction percolate subtly in these paintings, most arrestingly in "Pythagoras," a museum interior with a uniformed janitor vacuuming the red carpet surrounding an exhibit of a huge fossilized animal jaw.

Still, it's too bad the center didn't choose to show more of LaDuke's pieces about techno-industrial Orange County, which he replicates with startling freshness and authority.

* "Robert Williams: New Work" and "Outside and In-Between: Simone Adels, Thomas LaDuke and Morgan Arden Carver," through April 12 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-6 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3 general, $2 seniors and students. (714) 374-1650.

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