It’s clear from looking at Robin F. Williams’s recent work at PPOW that the painter has been busy. “Sons of the Pioneers,” her second solo show at the gallery since 2011, consists of ten oil paintings and one drawing (all created between 2012 and 2014). It’s an ambitious exhibition that builds from her last series of portraits, which featured teenagers hiding behind tough looks and couture armor. The textures and the overly elaborate details of their outfits were thrilling. They pulled you in closer to see how Williams painted them, but the figures themselves seemed indifferent, which created an interesting dynamic.
In her new work, that dynamic gets more complicated. Williams doesn’t want to just dazzle you with surface, though there’s much to be dazzled by. She continues to hone her already sharp skills with surface, color, and composition. Still present is the unique fashion worn by her figures. As Williams describes in an Artist for Artist interview with fellow painter Micah Ganske, it’s based on costumes that she herself created. They lead her to make sensuous color pairings and textures. What’s really palpable in “Sons of the Pioneers” is how these elements come together as conceptual tools in ways that they didn’t before. For example, bright neons mark the curious head gears of Hunter and Astronaut, which are larger-than-life “head-shots.” You can sense the influence of fashion photography on Williams’s work, which in turn makes you aware of the historical link between painting, photography, fashion, and advertisement. Are the intensely saturated colors meant only to grab our attention—if so, why? In that same interview with Ganske, Williams categorizes her paintings as either “portraits” or “people in their environments,” an observation that’s really about the pictorial distance she wants to create between the viewer and the subject.
In that regard, a major compositional decision Williams makes is to use round and oval canvases and panels, as well as circular framing devices within the more traditional rectangular ones. This is a way for her to draw our attention to the themes she’s exploring, mainly art history and gender. It also serves to isolate her figures and limit what you can see of the person and his world, and from there apply a narrative of your own. The portraits in “Sons of the Pioneers” portray men, each of whom is depicted alone or accompanied by other men in the background whose relationships to the main figure are unclear. The press release suggests that the artist’s goal is to construct “a new and sympathetic masculine mythology.” I’m not sure if the paintings do that, but they can certainly provoke meaningful conversations about masculinity and gender roles.
Robin F. Williams, Beach Sitter, 2013, oil on canvas, 60 x 44; Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery
In paintings like Gold Panner, Beach Sitter, Man in Tall Grass, Cave Painting, and The Gardeners, the men take on what have traditionally been the pictorial roles and poses of women. They are nude and/or reclining outside, in the grass, in a stream, by the ocean, amidst dense foliage, or resting near cacti. In these paintings, Williams is directly referring to the reclining nudes or bathers painted by a canon of white, male artists: Renoir, Manet, Ingres, David, Titian, Giorgione, etc. Williams’s paintings take a critical stance toward this patriarchy, though her criticism is ambivalent. This ambivalence gives her breathing room to ask questions about complex and difficult themes, instead of being pressured to provide rigid answers.
Paintings like Man in Tall Grass and The Gardeners are subtle investigations into the politics of the gaze. To that end, Williams puts her formalism to great effect. In Man in Tall Grass, a door-size oil painting, the picture’s horizontal format compresses the space, drawing us closer to the bearded figure reclining on a striped blanket. Purples and greens harmoniously frame his body. We see him obliquely, so although his pose may seem to match the horizontal panel, it’s a slant rhyme that turns his body away from us. His eyes are cast downward, but the tilt of his head suggests that he’s conscious of being seen.
Meanwhile, in The Gardeners, the long-haired figure is positioned to meet us with his body and his gaze. Nearby to his left, another man is on his back, looking skyward. They are both nude amidst a plump and verdant terrain, with no clothes in sight, implying perhaps that we’re encountering them after they’ve had sex. The Gardeners invokes comparisons to Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings, particularly to her twilight-hour palette and her use of fruits and vegetation as sexual innuendos. Yuskavage is another painter who manipulates art historical traditions and techniques expertly and irreverently in her provocations about gender, sexuality, and power.
Robin F. Williams, Onlooker, 48 x 48, oil on canvas, 2013; Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery
Williams’s most provocative painting in the show is Self Portrait. If, as the press release and the title propose, all of the portraits depict men, then this is a portrait of Williams as a man sitting on a stool, wearing only a patterned fabric wrapped around his head, completely surrounded by grass and leaves. Yet without the language of the press release and the title to contextualize this image, would we still read this figure as a man—or for that matter, would we read all of the portraits as representations of men? I think so, because unfortunately we’ve been socialized to equate masculinity with maleness. And in Self Portrait, Williams purposely positions the figure’s legs and arms in sharp angles to denote a masculine pose.
What if we were cued to read the figures as women? Or as people whose gender identities don’t fit within the binary boxes of male/female? What internalized meanings would we then project onto their bodies? Williams’s paintings make elusive and complex connections between masculinity, formalism, art history, and patriarchy, and they can be difficult to grasp. Maybe because we, like these sons of pioneers—inheritors of complicated and fraught histories—would rather watch and be watched. We don’t want to think about the power play embedded in painting; we just want to enjoy it as a beautiful object. It takes a lot of work to train our brains to see differently and to imagine other possibilities of relating to each other.
(Image on top: Robin F. Williams, Gold Panner, 2013, oil on canvas, 60 x 60; Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery.)