Time Out New York / Jan 14–20, 2010

Robert Williams

Robert Williams got his start in the mid-’60s as art director for famed custom car builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, graduating to California’s burgeoning underground comix circuit. He’s since embraced the outsider chic attached to both endeavors, while honing his painterly and graphic techniques to garish perfection.

Still, capable as he is of producing startling images, Williams remains committed to an ultraslick variant on thrift-store Surrealism that feels awkwardly unreconstructed. While the “lowbrow” vocabulary of both the comic book and the tattoo parlor has long since been incorporated into contemporary art, the misogyny that shadows the 66-year-old’s oeuvre feels dated. And the crushingly obvious moral allegories he favors are, if taken at anything like face value, a thoroughgoing embarrassment.

Yet there is some lunkheaded fun to be had here. Williams’s illustrative fluency allows him to breathe entertaining life into even the silliest ideas. Who else could or would render a tribe of blue, spiral-headed dwarves dragging a minidress-clad blond into a landscape distinguished by an endless procession of right angles? Or make a painting called Natal Gluttony—Stewardship of the Earth Begins in the Bedroom that actually contrives to demonstrate the titular lesson? Two new large polychrome sculptures see the artist revisit his hot-rod painting days, but best of all is a much older work, Zap #6, Chrome Center Spread (1971), a print of a pen-and-ink original in which Williams applies his skill with dazzling psychedelic intensity.

Image: Robert Williams, Swap Meet Sally, 2006