The work of Robert Williams (often stylized as Robt. Williams) is sick, perverse, offensive, violent, erotic, profane, and firmly without any sort of god to speak of. That is also precisely why it is incredible. Robert Williams: The Father of Exponential Imagination, his show at Bellevue Arts Museum, is expansive, covering the many decades of the Los Angeles–based artist's career, from his involvement in the hot-rod scene in the 1960s to his more recent paintings of the 2010s.
Of course, there's much in between. After getting his start making ads and graphics for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's hot-rod garage in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, Williams joined Zap Comix, an underground comix series, and their roster of artists like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. His frenetic and fastidiously constructed drawings and paintings would go on to be associated with the burgeoning punk scene in LA in the 1980s.
Later, not seeing his style of art recognized by the art world, he founded Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine in 1994 as a way to give "lowbrow" artists recognition and a platform. Williams is an artist for every age.
In his show at BAM, his obsessions are on full display: sculptures, paintings, prints, drawings, and even an original hot rod on the first floor of the museum. The front half covered in giant hand-painted flames, the 1940 Ford Super DeLuxe Station Wagon sits with its hood up, its chrome engine on full display near the bay windows, beckoning viewers in.
In conjunction with Fantagraphics Books, Williams is also releasing a catalogue raisoneé—a comprehensive collection of all his known works—on November 26. It weighs 11 pounds. The book includes writings by Williams that correspond to each of his works, a practice that extends into the museum as well. Alongside each piece in the show is an extended label written by Williams, lending perspective on his own work.
A technically skilled draftsman, Williams's works are often psychedelic, depicting an alternate, surreal reality. Jaws unhinge so that the tongue can become a sort of beast to ride, Tarzan-like men wrestle with aliens, and hungry spirits reach toward burgers covered in demons. He's constantly creating shapes and beings that—by the laws of this universe—could never exist. Williams's naughtiness and jokes are not hemmed in by "good taste" or any type of moral responsibility.
His work can be seen as a reaction against the art world of the post–World War II era, which favored abstraction and nonfigurative art. It can also be understood as a countercultural pushback to the values of mid-20th-century American society—consumption, war, conservative social mores.
While there are pros (I don't think I've ever seen a hand-painted, hand-airbrushed, hand-constructed nine-foot wheel made entirely of fanged mouths in a museum before) and cons (the sexual and gender politics of his work are pretty stagnant; it's masculinity run amok, at times) to his vision of the world, it's undeniably compelling. He is obsessed with impossibility of form, of subject, of reality.
Uncovering meaning in his unique and distinct mythology is not as important to him as the pleasure of purely looking, of fantasizing. As Williams writes in the label for Pathos in Papier-Mâché, "To over-investigate fantasy seems to drain the childish joy out of it."