Through Prehensile Eyes: Seeing The Art Of Robt. Williams
By Robert Williams (Last Gasp, 200 pages, $49.95)
Amid an idyllic, snow-covered forest scene, Piltdown man tosses a woolly mammoth into the air. To the right are three panels. The first depicts Piltdown intently conversing with two modern-day guys while two modern-day women look on lovingly. In the second, a cartoonish skunk wearing devil horns holds a skull. And pictured in the third panel—sweet Jesus, it's just too bizarre for words.
Yep: If there's any painter you'd ever want to explain his work, it would be Robert Williams, father of the Lowbrow Art movement and founder of influential magazine Juxtapoz. His new book, Through Prehensile Eyes: Seeing the Art of Robt. Williams, is a collection of 56 oil paintings that he's produced since the 1996 collection Malicious Resplendence, paired with self-penned explanatory essays on each.
Williams began in underground comics (most notably Zap), where he worked with other visual pioneers like Robert Crumb. Although he's now primarily an oil painter, his comic-book past lends itself to art that includes elements from surrealism, film noir, pin-up art, carnival kitsch, pulp comics and hallucinogen-addled nightmares.
Behind these vivid, largely word-free displays are full-blown stories, from moralistic fables and philosophical explorations to scientific inquiries. The accompanying essays significantly add to appreciating his ability to marry high and low concepts and techniques. One painting initially seems like a regular girl-beneath-both-stars-and-sun portrait—until you notice the funnel creature that's mucking up the space-time continuum behind her. It's when you read the first sentence of Williams' accompanying essay, stating that the painting "drinks heavily from the well of quantum mechanics," that the real fun begins.
Some of these essays—as thought-provoking and meaning-dense as the paintings themselves—seem to assign significance retroactively, and several are awkwardly overwrought. It's not hard to imagine reading a sentence like "The cause of this levity is almost always some silly platitude that is innocuous," in a rejected Ph.D. dissertation. Included in a discussion of a painting featuring an anthropomorphic tube of magenta paint, though, it can seem like Williams is just trying too hard. While the twisted marriage of high and low in Through Prehensile Eyes clearly isn't palatable for all, those willing to work for their illumination will never again doubt the genius of an operatic clown torturing a tube of paint.
Robert Williams signs copies of Through Prehensile Eyes at CounterMedia, 927 SW Oak St., 226-8141. 6:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 3. Free.