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Painting and Drawing Fire

An unrepentant provocateur reviews his legacy

June 05, 2005|MARK EHRMAN

When it comes to lowbrow--contemporary art's bastard offshoot spawned by hot rod customizing, cartoons, tattooing, surfboard design and other once-declasse metiers--few practitioners boast an anti-pedigree like that of painter Robert Williams. After leaving Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in 1964, Williams conspired against respectability as art director at Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's custom car studios in the Southeast L.A. outpost of Maywood, then joined R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson in the vanguard of the 1960s underground comic scene. By the early 1980s, he was gaining notoriety for his psychedelic renderings of war scenes, glue sniffers and "nekkid ladies" draped on clam shells and tacos, all rendered with draftsmanship and painterly technique worthy of the Old Masters. Never a darling of curators or art world sophisticates, Williams now sees his canvases selling for as much as $60,000 to $100,000 to collectors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage. After a decade's absence from Los Angeles' museums and galleries, Williams is enjoying a retrospective at Otis Art Center titled "Robert Williams: Through Prehensile Eyes." Chatting poolside at his Chatsworth home, the 62-year-old outlaw artist, hot rod aficionado and co-founder of the lowbrow bimonthly Juxtapoz can still muster a rebel yell against mainstream conformity.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Williams -- An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about artist Robert Williams gave the location of his current retrospective, "Robert Williams: Through Prehensile Eyes," as Otis Art Center. It is at the Ben Maltz Gallery of Otis College of Art and Design.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 26, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on artist Robert Williams ("Painting and Drawing Fire," Metropolis, June 5) gave the location of his current retrospective, "Robert Williams: Through Prehensile Eyes," as Otis Art Center. It is at the Ben Maltz Gallery of Otis College of Art and Design.

This is your first show in Los Angeles in 10 years. Why is that?

Not only is my material out of left field, it's got a lot of gratuitous sex and violence in it too. I come from the underground comic book world where you're absolutely free, where I can get into any kind of taboo. I try to bring this language to painting, and I'm just horrifying everybody. The art culture in Los Angeles is a thinly masked imitation of the art culture in New York, and it's dominated by abstract expressionism, minimalism, conceptualism and pop art. They allude to a certain erudite sophistication that I don't bring to the table, and I sure don't bring it to the table with hot rods. The art world is just not going to deal with hot rods.

Doesn't your cartoonish sensibility have much in common with the preoccupations of male adolescents?

Yeah, the passions of life. Back in the '60s I was a realistic painter doing surrealistic subjects, and I was entirely alone. No gallery would show me. Later I met a fella named Gary Panter who started punk rock art in Los Angeles. He and a few other guys [in the mid-1980s] were having shows at after-hours clubs--the Zero One and Zomo. They were art fronts to sell liquor without a license. I realized that if I did really crude art work with a lot of energy in it like punk rock, I could show with these guys. So I started doing a set of paintings called Zombie Mystery Paintings that were painted on jute, which is burlap, so if they cut or spit on or urinated on them, they could be cleaned or sewed back up. I had a lot of gratuitous sex and violence in them, and they went over like crazy. This is the aesthetic of going beyond the pulp magazine cover into the darker psychology and sheer energy of an image. For young people, it was just wonderful, but when it got out beyond that, I was a pervert.

You spent 1965 to 1970 as art director at Roth Studios in Maywood, the custom hot-rod outfit immortalized in Tom Wolfe's "Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." What was that like?

It had a tremendous effect on me. It put me on my road through life. In about 1964 I became the art director of Black Belt magazine. I was there for six months and they fired me. Then I was a container designer for Weyerhaeuser Corp., a real right-wing deforester. I was in my psychedelic period, and it didn't take them long to realize that I wasn't executive stock. So they let me go. I went down to the unemployment agency and they said, "Well, we do have this one job that no one will take." And I said, "What is it?" They said, "They're looking for an art director at Big Daddy Roth's," and I said, "Give me the phone." I started at Roth when I was 22. Roth Studios was a think tank. They were looking for ideas and they had to be wild. I could fill that bill. I could just keep it completely satiated in nonsense. My time was my own and my dress code was my own, and I was around hot rodders, bikers, liberals, prostitutes and criminals. It was just a marvelous place. I learned that I wasn't just a jerk. There was a group I could function in, and it was part of this wonderful California heritage that was starting to blossom. The surfer culture, the hot rods, the skateboards, the bikers, the whole thing starting right up before my eyes. I was right there at the beginning.

The late hot-rod artist, car detailer and lowbrow patron saint Von Dutch was a big part of that scene. What do you think about his art now being licensed by clothing manufacturers, and of celebrities wearing Von Dutch hats?

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