Sunday, March 02, 2014

OPEN BIRTHDAY CARD TO ROBERT WILLIAMS


"The drawn line is the Devil's jiz stain." 
~ Robt. Williams

Robert Williams, one of the incontestable sires of underground comix and dick-kicking rough rider of representational graphics, celebrates 71 years today. I shouldn't have to extol the virtues of this American maverick who has done so much to define modern art over the past 50 years, but allow me to bang these keys in reverential cadence for just a moment in case you numbnuts don't fully understand the magnitude of his awesome impact. 

See, it's almost easy to overlook Williams' legacy in 2014 because so much of what we now take for granted in the arts- and what so many seem to have completely misunderstood- gained traction in the tremendous wake of his freewheelin' and pioneerin' days as a delinquent transplant in the City of Angels. Williams moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico to California in 1963, ostensibly to study art at Los Angeles City College (and perhaps evade legal trouble back home). He was a young artist who naturally gravitated toward hot rod culture, probably because his dad had operated a drive-in diner where as a teen he developed a keen appreciation for automotive engineering brilliance, rugged blue collar get-shit-done-ery and the newly emerging musical ruckus that suddenly provided the perfect soundtrack for both. You must remember that this thing called rock 'n' roll was also built for speed but had only recently evolved- some might say deviated- from the twisted earthy roots of black blues, gospel and horny white rebel music to challenge social restraint in the early 50s. Its sinister force was bustin' out but still rather pubescent in 1965- one year before the prohibition of LSD in California- when Williams landed his dream job as Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's art director, cranking out beautifully detailed monster t-shirts and magazine ads while dodging heat from local law enforcement and 1% biker gangs (according to folklore, Roth gave Williams a job and a handgun to defend himself while doing it). It was here, on the lunatic fringes of vulgar advertising aesthetics, that he began developing the body of work and hyperactive "kustom kulture" style that would characterize one of the most important artistic movements of the late 20th century.

In fact, the title of his first published art collection went on to be usurped by generations of art school lunkheads who are all too happy to brand themselves under the ironic "lowbrow" banner that Williams coined and championed from Zap Comix #4, published in 1969, to Juxtapoz Magazine, which he co-founded in 1994. Imagine how Venom must've felt when they realized the name of their sophomore record had become an entire musical sub-genre. Incidentally, Black Metal was released the very same year as The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams (1982, in case you're keeping score), the collection that introduced him to a new decade of miscreants and featured his controversial painting Appetite for Destruction on its cover. Yes, just a few years later that painting became both the cover and the title of one of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums ever recorded. Perhaps unfortunately, Guns N' Roses were not the most articulate or even fully conscious defenders of free expression and the waning Moral Majority made it their business to see that cover quickly and unceremoniously replaced with the comparatively bland tattoo motif that your mom probably has tattooed on her ass known throughout the world today. It wasn't the first time Williams' art had been protested and censored, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. The point is, rock 'n' roll has always been the Devil's music and, as Williams himself once so eloquently proclaimed, "The drawn line is the Devil's jiz stain."

I've only met the man twice in my life, both occasions brief and punctuated by my stammering adoration. At one such encounter on May 17, 1998 someone from his entourage mentioned that Williams isn't particularly comfortable with small children, so in the spirit of fair play I asked him to hold my daughter while I fumbled for my camera in the diaper bag and caught the awkward moment above on 35mm. I haven't yet seen the award winning documentary that came out last year, but I reckon I know Mr. Bitchin' well enough to confidently surmise that he ain't one to suffer fools gladly or run with the pack...even if the pack has exquisitely rendered colors. Or corporate sponsorship. Which is why I feel so many today have missed the fundamental outsider message...the underlying outlaw principle...the guiding inverted star of his creative wisdom. There is strength in numbers, perhaps, but little glory. And he should know. When Williams was drawing the outrageous cartoons that helped define the very term and concept "underground comix" he was one of only about ten artists in the entire world bold enough to kick against the wimps (if I may paraphrase both Nick Cave and the King James Bible) with a $3.95 funny book. He took the fine art world more or less by storm as he had always intended and dragged representational art- what he himself calls Conceptual Realism- into the 21st century so cretins like you and I can occasionally earn enough cash to pay the electricity bill while cackling madly under a full spectrum desk lamp. All I know is that Robert Williams, the well-spoken gentile of soft southern drawl and the rambunctious legend of demonic liberation through devotion to craft, means a great deal to me as an infrequent stutterer of words and even less frequent scrawler of images. Pandora's box has already been smashed wide open. Now what to do with all them demons? 


4 comments:

Texasshole said...

Juxtapoz went to shit after he stepped away. You'll still get the occasional good to great stuff in there, but most months if I'm not looking to see annoying graffiti or Mark Ryden wanna-be's I walk on by.

And also, fuck that magazine's endorsement of collectible Japanese toy variants.

Texasshole said...

Juxtapoz went to complete shit when Williams stepped away. Sure, you still get the occasional issue curated by someone with good taste. But most months I walk on by after another issue of LA custom car culture and Mark Ryden wanna-be's.

And fuck all that collectible toy variants shit that they focus on now.

Dennis Dread said...

You said it! Twice. I couldn't agree more. And that's putting it mildly.

Ryan.N said...

I finally realized you only say nice things about people on this blog. and never to talk shit or pathetically one up yourself with some retarded gossip. I suppose it must be tempting with the amount of shit to bitch about. people always post about things they hate not what they like. that's quite an accomplishment. seriously congrats