The Tyranny of Trash

Photo by Jack GouldRobt. Williams is the raunchy old man whose hideous and loving depictions of gigantic bazooms and mucous light the fires of a million young greasers; he's a rock star for the retro-ironic art crowd, whose own love of the absurd and ugly is reflected in their pompadours and flamed-out creepers. He tells them they can be uncouth and elite at the same time, reveling in their own bad taste. It's the tyranny of trash, and it's an ass-scratching good time.

It hasn't been long since Williams showed his hot-rodding pictures at the Huntington Beach Art Center—before the tragic and senseless coup that precipitated its fall from grace and national respect. Now he's back at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, along with all the pretty people with flowers in their hair and really hip jobs making taste for the rest of us, from sea to shining sea. And the parties are a blast: Ed Ruscha pops in for a visit. Trey Parker struts his stuff. Sometime burlesque dancers unleash themselves like storms. And for a moment, everyone is beautiful.

With “Best Intentions,” the Grand Central has put up one hell of a crowd-pleasing show, and you will please not take that as a slam. It's truly a beauty, though it's sadly lacking in the kind of painted farts that say so much with so little.

Luckily, the bazooms are still there.

Williams, like his Zap Comix crony R. Crumb, is a zitty teenage boy in an old man's body. But as he becomes old and decrepit, booger-faced adolescence isn't enough. Instead, the show is a high-concept masterwork. The concept? Slamming the wordy pretensions of art's haute monde. I'm down with that. But how do you remain “outside” when all the prettiest people are bending low to kiss your sagging ass? It's like Paul McCartney trying to pretend he's just another bloke 'round the pub, with one major exception: Williams is not a pathetic joke.

Williams bestows upon each of his fanciful works not one but three titles. One is the “explanatory nomenclature” —a ridiculously verbose and highfalutin' absurdity whose purpose is To Take an Entire Paragraph to Make Up Important-Sounding Shit and Imbue It With All Capitals. The second is the pool-hall title, which deflates the explanatory nomenclature, often in the form of a Zen koan or Sphinxy riddle. For Art's Triumph Over Substance, for instance, the pool-hall title is At Quantum Vaudeville, the Intermission is the Performance. I would have taken down the explanatory nomenclature, but I lacked the patience. You can thank me later.

It's wonderfully appropriate that Williams concentrates so deeply on his words: his paintings are incredibly literal. And that's one of the things that should make him an art-establishment outsider. We all know New York's decrees on these things: surface is surface, paint is paint. But Williams paints stories, and he paints them with the kind of hyperreal grotesqueries so beautifully realized by OC homeboy F. Scott Hess. They are cartoons with beginnings, middles and ends; they anthropomorphize things that shouldn't have hands and feet, like logs and tubes of magenta pigment, like Fantasia except with bondage and domination. And there are lap dances, with the evocative pool-hall title Crotch Fire Sale at the Ballet of Hovering Clams; and there is Piltdown Man in a living room, the housewives gawking lustily; and there are Minotaurs in tutus, dreaming peacefully by the river.

Williams' head is a sad and twisted world. There is Mumsy Twig-Baby, an old, gnarled lady who cuddles and croons to a baby she has fashioned from an old, gnarled tree root. And, naturally, there are Chinese sweatshops, the guards pointing bayonets at the cowed women who make Baby Wee-Ling, the Lil' Orphan Panda Doll so similar to Margaret Keane's sad-eyed waifs and the beggar dolls they spawned.

Whether he likes it or not, Williams' place in the art world is assured. What posterity will have to say about him is anyone's guess, but the Establishment knows that having young and pretty people about is good for business, and he's got them in spades. For his legions of billycats and billykittens and his followers at classic-car shows everywhere, Williams' elder-statesman status is not a deterrent. I guess everyone wants a daddy figure, even a foul-mouthed old pervert with his hand down his pants.

Robt. Williams at Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233. Through April 29.

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