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COVER STORY

A More Sophisticated Palette

Robert William's comic-book inspired paintings have influenced those who want to juxtapose the worlds of the prosaic and the poetic.

March 08, 2001|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Artist Jeff Gillette takes heart that he's not alone in melding his fascination with pop culture and fine art.

His idol, he thinks, would approve.

"Robert Williams was my introduction to art, period," said Gillette, 41, a Cal State Fullerton graduate art student.

Williams, an underground comic-book illustrator of the 1960s, crossed over to the fine-art world as a painter, taking his "low art" to new heights and paving the way for like-minded artists.

In the last decade he has permeated the Orange County scene as local artists, venues and collectors embrace his paintings. His work resonates in the land of surf culture and hot rods.

Its influence can be seen in Gillette's paintings that juxtapose religion, sex, cartoons, philosophy and Mickey Mouse. Artist Josh Agle, a.k.a. Shag, has been compared with Williams too. Agle paints crowds of swank swingers in lounge settings.

"I was influenced by Williams and artists like him, to an extent, because I did try to pattern my career as a painter after what they had done," said Agle, 38, of Orange, a former graphic designer and illustrator who now paints full-time.

Williams' new series of 18 oil paintings are on exhibit at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. The show, "Best Intentions," comes after a New York debut at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. The West Coast premiere kicks off the center's second anniversary and Williams' 58th birthday.

"He's an artist who has gained a cult following," said Grand Central director Mike McGee.

Williams' collectors read like a Who's Who list: Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Yoko Ono among others. His name catapulted into the "high" art world in 1992, when his paintings were shown in the controversial exhibition, "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" at the Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

He has since been featured in Orange County: the 1993 "Kustom Kulture" group exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum; a 1998 solo show, "Robert Williams: New Work," at the Huntington Beach Art Center; and now the Grand Central show.

Williams' oil paintings are playful, graphic and fantastical but they also address such matters as evolution, human foibles, sex and violence.

"It's hard to call his work mature because it has so much adolescent verve bursting at the seams," McGee said.

There is nothing subtle about Williams' style. The lines and shapes are exaggerated, and incongruent images are placed together. The paintings don't just grab your attention, they assault the eyes.

Blame it on the psychedelic '60s with its liberating, even dizzying, use of color schemes, Williams said. A color theorist's worst nightmare, Williams is known for his bright palette. He layers cool, turquoise-greens next to warm, orange-reds. He uses grays and muted contrast hues to make the colors appear to leap off the canvas.

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This cartoonish, surrealistic style of exaggeration seems to undercut the lifetime Williams spent studying form and color theory. His paintings also have distinctive broad-hatch brush strokes that are easily missed; his keen attention to technique is reminiscent of classical painters of the Renaissance and 19th century.

He expertly fuses comic-book and pop-culture influences with an academic style, McGee said. "He's an excellent draftsman and his paintings are refined and elegantly painted."

McGee said Williams borrows figurative forms, light and mood from masters such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bosch, Turner and Delacroix. Salvador Dali is Williams' favorite 20th century painter.

"You can't deny the fact that Williams played a role in reviving the figurative and representational," McGee said.

Williams' knack for developed story lines came from his budding days as an underground cartoonist with Zap Comix in the 1960s. The paintings tend to overstate a point. Each has three titles, including an obtuse scientific, academic-style name, a colloquial reference and "bar room" name.

"I realized when I was younger that if a painting had more than one title, then it offered people different ways of looking at the painting," said Williams, who lives with his wife, Suzanne, in North Hollywood. "I'm trying to make the art that is fun for people rather than to pass off bogus intellectuality."

While painting, Williams honed his comic-book skills. He learned about "timing," a technique that brings a sense of movement to the canvas.

He still uses cartoon techniques such as bubble captions and breakaway panels that serve as visual asides or vignettes, elaborating on the dominant subject. Completing each painting can be so taxing that it takes him from one to four months to finish.

"My paintings have to compete with radio, television and all these electronic things that move and keep your attention, and a painting has to have that kind of energy and movement," Williams said.

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