"We got nothing better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews." Those are lyrics from TV Party by the 1980's West Coast hardcore punk band Black Flag. This song was blaring through the Tony Shafrazi gallery while I admired the painting "Symbiotic Mediocrity," where two TV-set-head characters sit idly in the mid-foreground of a barren landscape amongst a glazed over blue-green sky. The characters face each other and are programmed to replicate the images of themselves, like two mirrors adjacent to one another, reducing the figures to dormant ape like creatures with a parasitic host upon their heads (usually in the animal kingdom it is a pesky flea). I laughed out loud at once gazing at the picture and listening to the song juxtaposing one another. The choice to play this song (whether it was on shuffle and unintentional or planned) fit the context of Robert Williams' solo show almost perfectly.
In no way does Robert Williams' art suggest an ideology as bland as having nothing better to do, but it is a more progressive approach to the punk rock aesthetic of being fed up with the current state of affairs. For Robert Williams that condition began a decade earlier during the late 1960's when conceptual art in the form of minimalism and pop art, surpassed the prevailing mainstream mode of formalist and non-representational painting that was Abstract Expressionism. Williams was treading uncharted waters when he combined the age-old aesthetic of realism with the conceptual ideologies of pop art and the absurdities of surrealism. He created a style of fine art painting that was soaked with cartoon and comic book imagery. He even gave the first series of paintings the name "Lowbrow," which was a stab at the art world's obsession with putting academic and intellectualism on fine art. The art schools were all teaching formalism and for talented draftsmen like R. Crumb, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and Robert Williams, there was no place for "illustrators" amongst the hierarchy. Critics like Clement Greenberg who advocated the abstraction of Pollock, De Kooning and Reinhartd helped to implicate such an unfavorable view of figurative painting. However, Pollock and de Kooning both returned to painting recognizable imagery. It was of no surprise that Willem de Koonings' "Women" series, which used gestural handling of the paint and formalist compositional theory to create a recognizable image, drew sharp criticism from critics and even his own Ab Ex peers. In the catalog for Emotional Impact: New York School Figurative Expressionism, curator April Kingsley writes that at one particular meeting of the "Artists Club" Ad Reinhartd even went so far as to say that the only difference he saw between de Kooning and Norman Rockwell was that Rockwell had a higher opinion of women. For Robert Williams, whose figuration was far more realistically rendered than de Kooning, this wasn't a good sign of things to come.