The Realest

Robert Williams: A punk before his time

Standing in front of Robert Williams’ art is reminiscent of an awe-inspiring rock show; bright and hardcore, his work is the visual equivalent a guitar riff’s crescendo. Williams’ canvases are aesthetic explosions and he’s created 60 of them for his upcoming show at the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Slang Aesthetics.

Originally, Williams created the work with another destination in mind—The Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York City, the very same gallery that propelled geniuses like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring to super stardom. "Shafrazi is a very famous character, he was very good friends with Andy Warhol," Williams says. When Shafrazi lost his lease, however, Williams decided to show (rather than sell) the work, and its first appearance at the Barnsdale Park Municipal Museum in 2015 set attendance records at the 60-year-old institutuion on the outskirts of Hollywood.

The collection, now headed to CCA, utilizes new-school imagery with fairly old-school methodology, an intersection between Williams' forward-thinking aesthetic and knowledgeable reverence for art history. "They are fine art oil paintings painted on good linen," he says, "just like they did 400 years ago." Think radical comic-book imagery painted with the skill and technique of a guy like Monet.

Williams' accomplishments are enough to make any human feel mortal, and his laurels rest in many branches of the art world: from cover art for Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction to pushing an agenda of social evolution through his drawings at Zap Comix and, ultimately, the founding of Juxtapoz Magazine, the number one selling art magazine in the world. Williams, by the way, happens to be a New Mexican, born and raised in Albuquerque.

"I moved to LA in 1963 to go to Los Angeles City College to major in fine arts, and that's when I learned how off-track I really was," Williams says. "I was at odds. I really wanted to be a remarkable fine arts artist and be a realist." Abstract expressionism ruled the art world at the time, and that made it particularly hard for him to find a niche that would allow him to do both.

In the late 1960s, Williams worked as the art director for custom car legend Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. "Custom car shows were very big in the '50s and '60s, and they are very big now," Williams tells SFR. "These were wild extravaganzas with wild creations of automobiles, and Ed Roth was the wildest."

Roth's world was bohemian to say the least, and it introduced Williams to a slew of creative types. He met psychedelic poster artists, which opened the door to underground comics.

"Anything goes as long as you have a wild imagination," Williams says of non-mainstream comics. "They were one of the key factors in social change, and the premier underground comic was the very first one, started by Robert Crumb, Zap Comix, and I was fortunate enough to be one of seven artists in the comic and we all shared ownership."

The comics scene satiated Williams to a certain point but, he says, "In the '70s and '80s, I was still trying to find galleries that would take my wild paintings; paintings were supposed to be sedate and caring and color-conscious, and I was doing paintings that were screaming."

Luckily for Williams, his intense works would interact with the looming punk rock explosion of the '70s and '80s. "The punk rock movement was nothing like the hippie movement," he says. "The punk rock movement was a revolutionary, energetic movement that hated society, and would do anything."

He began to show work at after-hours clubs in Los Angeles during the storied heat of the punk uprising, and his creations were well-received. "My paintings were a total success. I couldn't paint them fast enough. Wild colors, gratuitous sex and violence and anything went. … For the first time in my life, I had a painting peer group."

And still, the art world at large shunned him.

"Art Forum did some writing on me—not positive, but no one else did." Williams reminisces. "Art in America wouldn't deal with me, even though I had good friends writing for them, [and] they just turned their back on the fact that there was this enormous energy breaking through in the United States—so I started a magazine called Juxtapoz."

The magazine promotes alternative art forms, like graffiti, tattoos and gig posters, giving a legitimacy and voice to art not destined for museums. Born in 1994 as a quarterly publication, Williams says, "we decided to have the art be the thing that fills up the page."

Robert Williams: Slang Aesthetics
6-8 pm Friday Sept. 23. Free.
Center for Contemporary Arts,
1050 Old Pecos Trail,

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