"Something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas!" So says Robert Williams in his "Rubberneck Manifesto" of 1989, and it's true--no Louvre gridlock matches the rubbernecking delays caused by a good carwreck. But isn't this a deadly realization for a painter? Creating a single Mona Lisa would be enough for most artists, but Williams wants to surpass a hundred of them. Can rattling the bars of an old medium like easel painting ever attract as much attention as road kill?
After a youth spent among beatniks and street gangs, in the mid '60s Williams attended a Los Angeles art school that propounded a rigid Abstract Expressionist pedagogy. In rebellion he turned to the city's underground culture, designing tattoos and customizing cars for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. In 1967, Williams joined cartoonists R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson at the underground comic Zap, which would become famous not only for its sharp graphics but for its lavish sex and violence. To Williams, the no-holds-barred creative freedom of Zap was an expression of social dissent as important to him as dodging the Vietnam draft; and indeed, as if to prove the point, the magazine's publisher and various of its distributors were harassed by the FBI, and the artist began to receive hate mail from right-wing types.
In recent years the hate mail has begun to pour in from the opposing camp: left-wing, politically correct types who see Williams as violent, sexist, and homophobic. In other words, though his art may not yet have attained the power of a highway crackup, he must be doing something right. And the medium is oil on canvas: Williams all but ceased to do commercial work around 1970.
What's the modus operandi that pisses people off? In any given painting, Williams combines brash, lurid colors with half a dozen different painting styles. (He himself avows that his influences range from Bosch and Delacroix to girly magazines, carnival art, and, of course, comix.) And if the form of his vision is a slap in the face, its substance is a finger down the throat. Williams just adores the extreme. Human beings are mortal? Williams depicts them with their heads blowing up. Men desire women? Williams depicts women as buxom babes and men as horny goons. Artists need subjects? Williams depicts the artiste as a slobbering subhuman scraping a pancake of dead raccoon off the road.
At first sight, Williams' paintings may shock, titillate, or disgust as readily as bloody bodies and mangled metal, but they differ from the spectacle of auto fatalities insofar as they are not senseless. Informed commentaries lurk beneath their apocalyptic veneer: recent works have dealt with crack babies, World War I history, and other eclectic subjects. As is typical with Williams, a work of 1992 titled The Cartoon Disease has two subsidiary titles: Scholastic Designation: Satisfactory Mental Health Is Predicated on the Self-Denial Standard That, Abstraction Is Anomaly and What a Monkey Sees Is What a Monkey Will Do, Hence the Liberties Expressed in Cartoons Expose the Supple Minds of Children to the "Curse of the ThreeFingered Glove" and Remedial Title: Pantyhose and Shorts Nibblin' Pulp-Paper Goons Aren't For Junior and Sis. …