Robin F. Williams
For Artspeak’s Artist Survey, our publishing director Atesh M. Gundogdu emailed some of his favorite artists few questions. He asked them about their exhibitions, their thoughts and some quirkier personal questions. Here are some answers from Robin Williams whose current exhibition runs at PPOW Gallery.
In her third exhibition with P.P.O.W, Williams extends her longstanding interest in gender roles to probe the strangeness of feminine identity in our current moment.
Atesh M. Gundogdu: Can you describe your studio practice?
Robin F. Williams: I usually wake up and spend my morning outside of the studio. I handle life stuff, or answer emails. Then I ride my bike or walk to studio and generally don’t arrive until around 11am or noon. I work into the evening for 6-8 hours. I have to listen to something in order to focus, usually a podcast or book on tape.
My practice for the last few years has really been about experimentation and attempting to merge varying techniques into one piece. That has required making a lot of studies and preparatory drawings in order to plan the stages of making a painting. When I’m in studio, I’m physically working on studies or final pieces. When I’m outside of studio, I’m thinking about ideas, taking in imagery, searching for reference material, seeing art in galleries and museums, or doing other kinds of visual research. I usually have new ideas for paintings at home before bed, in transit, in the shower, but usually outside of studio. This most recent body of work has drawn on a lot of 1970’s print advertisements, so I’ve been spending time looking for those online. I also have a little collection of vintage Playgirl magazines, and other books that inform my work. Often I’ll find an advertisement that reminds me of a historical painting. That painting may have some resonance with the more recent image (usually involving a woman’s body). Collapsing those images into a new piece says something about how history informs our current ideas about desire, beauty and art.
AMG: What is your art for?
RFW: This question is so cryptic. For me, it’s for a sense of meaningful connection. It’s for the day-to-day practice and the satisfaction of always having an idea to turn over in my mind. It’s for that uninterrupted concentrated time that is only mine. It’s for the conversations that come out of the work. I think most artists make things because they want to know what it would be like to see that thing exist in the world. We are very curious people. We want to see how the world will hold the things we make. We want to know how the senses will experience a work of art in the real world. It’s not enough to just imagine something. It’s like running some kind of experiment.
AMG: What was the impetus for Your Good Taste Is Showing?
RFW: I wanted to paint women, and I wanted to paint about female desire. I have always wanted to make paintings like these, but I wasn’t ready. I moved to a different studio and met a lot more female artists. I finally felt like I could intelligently and intuitively make these paintings with their support and feedback. I had also become bored with my oil painting practice and knew I needed to start taking more risks technically. I started using an airbrush. I started staining raw canvas and incorporating drawing into my paintings. It made for all of these weird edges and boundaries where marks were always jumping into another visual language. I think this spoke to the experience of having a female body and finding oneself in various situations where suddenly the “rules” have changed. The sun goes down or the people in the room swap out, or you age (a day, a year, a decade) and abruptly the acceptability of your sexuality shifts. I wanted to paint about those inexplicable boundaries. I also wanted to paint about the cultural disconnect between female desire (whether professional, person, sexual) and authority. We don’t make a lot of room for those things to exist together. Women’s status as feminine, sexy, or desirable becomes jeopardized when we cease to accommodate the desires of others or when we reveal our own desires. We had a very ambitious woman running for president who was hated for how much she wanted it. As a female painter who wants things, who has desire, I saw this as a problem to be explored in my work.
AMG: How was your preparation process for this exhibition?
RFW: I had a lot of time to make these paintings. I think the oldest piece in the show is about 3 years old. There were times when I felt really impatient for this show to come together, but in retrospect, I needed all the time. It was a huge period of growth for me personally and professionally. I had to make failed pieces and figure out technical challenges. It has been a very rewarding process.
AMG: Can you describe for me the connection between your source material and your paintings?
RFW: The source material sometimes ends up as direct imagery in the paintings (as in Nude Waiting It Out, Stop Signs, It is Not a Pipe) and sometimes just informs an idea. Bottom Feeder, for instance, depicts a woman underwater with her mouth open at the bottom of a lake, her feet sticking up out of the water. This painting started with an advertisement for men’s shoes. A naked woman was lying on the ground looking admiringly at a men’s shoe. The copy read, “Keep her where she belongs…” The painting didn’t borrow any of the actual imagery, but it alluded to the sentiment in the ad and spoke to the psychic damage of that type of messaging. It also touched on the erotic or sexual components of domination that woman sometimes willingly, but often unwillingly endure as a normal part of sex (and a normal part of life).
I’m also often referring to specific works of art or specific artists (Manet, Bernini, Courbet, Balthus, Gauguin, Magritte) as a way to address the use of women’s body’s as vessels for male desire throughout art history. Sometimes these artists complicated that narrative. Sometimes they perpetuated it. As a female artist, it’s very satisfying to revise and distort their work for my own means.
AMG: Did you train as an artist?
RFW: I attended Rhode Island School of Design and studied Illustration. I had a teacher there who challenged me to think of myself as a painter and an artist. The rest of my training has been in my studio in New York where I moved after graduating in 2006.
AMG: What would you cite as your formative influences?
RFW:I was mostly in love with children’s books as a kid. I really thought I would be an illustrator. I had great art teachers growing up. I learned to oil paint when I was 5 with a wonderful teacher I saw until I was 14. Then I had an incredible high school teacher who encouraged me to apply to RISD. My taste in painters changed a lot in my early years. A painting that has always stuck with me was Manet’s Olympia. My high school teacher showed it to me and explained the scandal behind it. I thought it was so powerful and brave and subversive. I still didn’t know you could just be a painter. I thought you had to get a job. So I studied illustration which I mistakenly thought would be safer. But I never forgot that painting, and I always wanted to make work that made me feel that way again.
AMG: What is the relationship in your work between meaning and aesthetic?
RFW: When the paintings are really working, form and content feed each other. A technique that I’ve discovered in a previous painting will give me an idea for a new painting. Then I’ll discover something new during that process and the cycle will keep going.
As I mentioned earlier, combining a lot of different techniques creates interesting edges that really speak to the meaning of the work. For me, how I’m painting something is every bit as important as what I’m painting, sometimes more important. In figurative painting, the danger is always making work that’s too literal or didactic. The aesthetic or formal decisions have to complicate or deepen the meaning behind the content or else I’m really not making art at all. The goal is to make these two things sing together until they feel intrinsically linked.
AMG: Who has inspired you in your life and why?
RFW: I had a favorite children’s book illustrator as a kid, Trina Schart Hyman. She just made me want to draw. I wrote her a letter when I was 13 and she wrote me back! It felt like getting a letter from a celebrity. The handwriting in her letter was the same handwriting from her books. It made being an artist seem so real and accessible. I felt special that she had bothered to write me back.
I mentioned my teachers earlier. They gave me so much to think about, and so much support. They just really believed in me. A million other artists have inspired me, from Manet to the women in my critique group. Reading a lot of female authors and scholars has been really inspiring, Linda Nochlin, bell hooks, Virginia Wolf, Elena Ferrante, Rebbecca Solnit. I find that inspiration comes in little pieces from lots of different people and places. I think that’s the best way to filter it into good work. If inspiration only comes from a few sources, the work it yields turns out pretty derivative.
AMG: Who would you most want to meet?
RFW: Living? Probably Barack Obama. Dead? It’s almost impossible to think about this question. Maybe Manet? Maybe Goya?
AMG: What images keep you company in the place where you work?
RFW: Honestly, wall space is at a premium in NYC. I need all the room I can get for my own work. I have lots of art books at home that I flip through and some old magazines lying around. The Internet has just about any image I could ever want to see. But I don’t hang up a lot of images except maybe a reference that’s really informing a piece that I’m working on at the time.
AMG: What emotions are you channeling into your art?
RFW: I’m channeling as many as I can. Most recently there’s yearning, apathy, anger, fear, lust, grief, glee, excitement, and hope. I’ve also been trying to make work that has a sense of humor even while it addresses dark subject matter.
AMG: What is your taste in music?
RFW: I grew up on lot of Oldies and Bluegrass as a kid. I like all kinds of music now. I generally prefer singer songwriters in all genres. I appreciate great lyrics.
AMG: What is your favorite title of an artwork?
RFW: This is a good question. I’d probably say The Treachery of Images. As an actual painting, it’s a bit dull, but as a conceptual piece of artwork it’s brilliant and silly. I borrowed a version of the text that’s in The Treachery of Images (“this is not a pipe”) in the title of my own painting, It Is Not A Pipe. In my painting, a woman who looks like Cousin It from the Adam’s family smokes a cigarette in a meadow. She’s wearing what could be sunglasses but that look like floating orbs. She’s some kind of strange thing. The title refers to either her or the cigarette as “It” when it declares, It Is Not A Pipe. The title might mean that the cigarette is not a pipe, obviously. It could also mean that the girl (It) is not a pipe. In reference to The Treachery of Images, the title means that the image of the girl is not the girl. Magritte points out that images are only ideas. This is a concept often forget when it comes to images of women. In advertising, images of women are conflated with the object being sold, the actual “it”. Or images of women are simply conflated with desire itself.
AMG: What does female empowerment mean to you?
RFW: Female empowerment is a concept that is usually thought of as the responsibility of women. It’s assumed that women alone can empower themselves. That’s a damaging misconception. Women must believe that they are valuable, worthy of respect, worthy of physical and sexual autonomy, and capable in their pursuits. However, it’s important to distinguish these personal affirmations from empowerment. A belief in one’s own worth is a belief held in tact for the sake of one’s own sanity. In order to survive the unrelenting psychic and physical trauma served up to women from the day we are born, we have to create a narrative for ourselves that preserves our own dignity. Empowerment is granted. Women feel empowered when they are actively empowered by their culture. When the world reflects back to them their inner affirmations, then they are actually allowed to possess what they believe they deserve. The Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Cosbys, and Donald Trumps of the world have to be held accountable by other men and by the culture at large. It doesn’t matter how much success a woman is able to acquire, if she is being belittled, intimidated, sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped along the way, all she is doing is surviving. Surviving is very important because it pushes the conversation forward toward the hope of empowerment for women in the future, but surviving isn’t enough. The ball is in the culture’s court. Artists shape culture. So in a small way, I can work toward the eventual empowerment of women by simply surviving and making work in the current misogynistic climate. Women cannot do this alone, nor should they be expected to serve as magically resilient whipping posts for patriarchal terrorism. When the world stops trying to break us, then we’ll see empowerment, and then some form of healing will be possible for men and women.
AMG: What is scary about the future?
RFW: What a question to end on. Everything?! Don’t get me started. We’re in such a strange time of transition in this country. Everything feels terribly unstable. But I am hopeful that it’ll lead to a necessary period of rebuilding and restructuring. All the ugliness is being pulled out into the light. Now we have to confront that ugliness and decide whether we want continue to let it define us.
The exhibition runs through November 11, 2017