Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

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Robert Williams at the Sonoma County Art Museum

“Slang Aesthetics: The Art of Robert Williams”
June 5 – September 20, 2015

How about we start with a scenario that seems reminiscent of the classic lead-in to a joke: “three guys walk into a…” (in this case) art museum. Said three gentleman come from different backgrounds and walks of life and upon entering the exhibition space each man reacts differently to the art he sees before him. There are three possible responses these men will have to the large collection of work created by Robert Williams, former artist for Zap comics and the founder of Juxtapoz magazine. The first chap, your average middle class suburbanite out for a little dash of culture, may find himself taken aback by the subject matter at hand. While he might be able to understand the imagery and its representational quality more easily than the seemingly unintelligible series of lines and paint splashes characteristic of the “high art” he has previously been exposed to, he still comes to the determination that the gaudy color schemes, depictions of nude females and general references to the low brow are in poor taste and perhaps obnoxious in their lack of subtlety. The second museum-goer is young, hip(ster), and open to the experience. He confronts these same icons with a sense of humor and finds many of the pictures quite funny and sarcastic in their less than tongue in cheek suggestions. Refreshed by an artist who in his 70’s still manages to seem relevant and tuned into the world around him, this attendee walks away with a strong appreciation of William’s approach. The third and undoubtedly most troublesome of these exhibit goers is that of the informed and art educated personage ready to pounce on the assault of cultural aesthetics he came to the gallery to witness first hand. Prone to flamboyant confabulation on subjects of this ill-reputed ilk, he readies to launch his wellspring of academic criticisms on the paintings but ultimately finds himself unable to utter any tirades with an honest tongue. It seems as if the pulp imagery confronting him is visually alluring and witty in its parade of tropes and societal taboos. The man, now thoroughly nonplussed, manages to eke out a reluctant grin, as if to say to the artist “well done, well done”. With this signal of surrender the gentleman proceeds through the gallery and continues to glance behind the dark veil he has found pulled back before him.

The 52 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures on view in “Slang Aesthetics” provide a chronological sweep of the last thirty years of Robert Williams’ artistic output. The three-dimnesional objects in particular demand a great deal of attention, especially the two large fiberglass pieces that occupy the central and furthest reaches of the gallery. “The Rapacious Wheel” is a cartoon behemoth come to life, conjuring up imagery from Little Shop of Horrors. After having recently read “The Langoliers” I can also imagine this static yet fearsome pop creature as a representation of the earth swallowing monstrosities that populate the alternate reality created by that story’s author Stephen King. Another sculpture on a grand scale entitled “Errant Levity” similarly calls to mind other media references, in this case Ren & Stimpy and Beetlejuice, and hybridizes the forms of an ecstatic jockey with that of his steed, the tongue of the rider merging into the corpus of the horse generating a 21st century centaur of ignoble birth. Curiously a small puff of dust rests behind the figure (suggesting movement), repeating the motif found in “The Rapacious Wheel”, which also emerges from a cloud of torrential activity.

Robert Williams, "The Rapacious Wheel", 2013

Robert Williams, “The Rapacious Wheel”, 2013

There were many interesting paintings in this show and they benefited from the substantial number of captions written by Williams himself. A 1985 painting of a nude female poised next to a skeleton exposing himself (the reveal being his intestines rather than his genitals) cleverly pokes fun at the sanctity of both the subject matters of death and artistic nudes as well as the mock seriousness often accompanying discussions of art. Williams has offered up three titles for the piece. The actual name of the oil on canvas is “A Star-Crossed Liaison Punctuated By The Display Of Each Other’s Best Parts”. An alternate “academic title” is given as “Pamela Mistakes The Geometric Dance of Death For The Aztec Mummy Salute” and additionally a common/everyman’s epigram of “Mooning The Dead”.

While Williams’ pictorial references to surrealism are abound, an attack against abstract art in general and Abstract Expressionism in particular is also communicated through the narrative sequences and captions accompanying the iconography. An audio interview with Williams provided on the museum’s website features the artist’s discussion of how his early art school education of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s held up the Abstract Expressionists as the ultimate paradigm of modern painting. The realism and craftsmanship evident in Williams’ work led to his becoming an object of derision from his teachers and peers, calling Williams “the Illustrator” and debasing his technique as commercial and mundane. A touch of poetic justice/revenge is discernible in many pieces but in 2013’s “The Decline of Sophistication” perhaps the artist sets up his most biting visual and linguistic counterblow. This tableau bases its central theme around good taste and the various symbols of it, or against it: the university facade with the carnival tent exterior, the salacious depiction of the entwined couple, the white trash junkyard set against a virtual “desert of the mind”. The evolutionary nod to the scholarly monkey being the current manifestation of old world civility and the specific dates listed on the tombstone even reference the founding of Williams’ own publication Juxtapoz in 1994. The clever caption for the image never approaches the sardonic, even if the painting does. One great line amongst many in this title card is the parting shot at the end of the statement, delivering a punchy summation of Williams’ larger body of work’s own mélange of classic craft and materials with the common and trite subjects of his own time. This phrase also serves as a fitting end piece to the experience of seeing this exhibit and the thoughts that are generated in viewing it: “Let he who has not seen the ram mate with the sow stand omnipotently above us, for he shall never know the taste of mutton bacon”.

Robert Williams, "The Decline of Sophistication", 2013

Robert Williams, “The Decline of Sophistication”, 2013

Recent Prints

Here are some of the recent prints I have been making in my darkroom.

Buck

Alicia, Eel River

Waterfall, Yelapa, Mexico

Two Bullriders, Bakersfield Rodeo

Rose Mandel- “The Errand of the Eye” at the de Young Museum

I took some of my students on a field trip to the de Young Museum this past week with the express aim of viewing the Rose Mandel exhibition of photographs that is up until October 13, 2013. I had never seen any of Mandel’s work before viewing the show and frankly, had never heard her name come up in either the broader history of photography or discussions about the local San Francisco Bay area artistic milieu. I was delighted however to get to see this collection of images for the first time and learn more about Mandel’s life and work (1910-2002). This survey of the photographer’s oeuvre was in conjunction with the Richard Diebenkorn exhibit also on display, and while most of us are readily familiar with the painter’s imagery, his friend and colleague Mandel was much less widely known to the larger Bay Area audience.

It may be that Rose Mandel’s name has slipped into some obscurity, which makes the de Young’s retrospective of her work all the more valuable some 60 years after her first exhibition there, but the artist was firmly rooted in the high Modernist photographic tradition. As an émigré from war-torn Poland, Mandel was forced to give up her practice as a child psychologist and start anew upon being naturalized in San Francisco in the late 1940’s (after several years of residence in the U.S. previous to that date.) The lingering impact of her homeland’s state of devastation and emotional resonance is visible in her work, even though at first many of the pictures seem to be mere formal abstractions. As a pupil of Ansel Adams, Mandel was able to adapt her printing and large format capture technique to that of her teacher, but rather than simply mimicking Adams’ dramatic landscape iconography, Mandel instead chose to merge these aspects of her craft with a more probing and psychologically intimate vision of everyday life. The great majority of the pictures in the exhibition are contact prints (primarily 4 x 5″) and the small scale and beautiful textures of the non-enlarged negatives creates an experience for the viewer that goes beyond pure, F.64 straight photographic principles. Her use of extreme soft focus surrounding a point of clarity as well as her concentration on reflections as subjects establishes a link between her work and that of the Surrealists as well as other artists who provoke us to go beyond mere visual recognition of objects, but instead to exercise more mental acuity in its deciphering.

Besides a strong presentation of the photographs (one wall of roughly 40-50 images contained the small 4 x 5″ contacts framed and arranged in a typological format) there was also the inclusion of some of Mandel’s personal documents and other written correspondences. Of particular note were the response she received on Museum of Modern Art letterhead from John Szarkowski (that institution’s renowned photography curator) regarding his enthusiasm in requesting to purchase one of her prints for the standard rate of $25 but also Mandel’s typewritten Guggenheim fellowship application that she authored in the 1960’s. The photographer did win the fellowship and it was a remarkable example of how times have changed in the professionalism of the artist and their personae. The one paragraph long proposal contained numerous “x”-ed out typos and could not have more simplified in its description. Mandel had already by that point been given prestigious exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as having work in the collection of several other museums, but the stark directness of her application to make a body of work on the people and places of Berkeley, California clashes with the hyper-verbal artistic theory and vocabulary that is so omnipresent in the universities of today. It was therefore rather refreshing.

Rose Mandel-On Walls and Behind Glass #20-1948

Rose Mandel-Jay DeFeo-1949