By JONATHAN VINER, APR. 2017
Robin F Williams is a painter based in Brooklyn, NY. Her figurative paintings explore pervasive American narratives about childhood, identity and gender. She is represented by PPOW Gallery in New York.
Jonathan Viner: I love your work so I'm excited to talk shop with you. I picked out some of your paintings that seem to emit a crackling intensity that brings to mind one word: "power." One of these, a huge, circular painting of a seated man with icey blue eyes, is titled "Self Portrait". What can you tell me about this one?
Robin F. Williams: It comes from a body of work exploring masculinity and vulnerability in western (and specifically American) figurative painting. I was painting men in repose who were stalled or having spiritual awakenings in American landscapes. I was thinking a lot about gender as it related to the subject/object relationship, or simply, who gets to paint who. Most images through history have reinforced a conquering hero-male artist narrative by making women's bodies the spoils of a some sort of pictorial victory. I'd been painting generous male muses and borrowing their likenesses for my feminist alternate reality. I thought it was fair to paint myself as well, as if I'd been born a cis gendered male. The thought experiment involved imagining what I might look like, how I might hold myself, what my insecurities might be, and how willing I would be to show those insecurities in a painting. Would I be a figurative painter interested in gender? Would I examine my own gender in painting? Would that be received as valid in the fine art world? Would I be an artist at all? The painting was an impossible image logically, but I wanted it to feel hyper real and vibrant. I almost killed myself painting the leaves and grass. I posed for a photo and altered it in photoshop to make my body as masculine as possible. It was one of my favorite pieces from my last show. It was also one of the first times my own work made me laugh. It may not have resulted in a very funny painting, but it was the first step toward allowing more humor into my work.
JV: Your still life "Yard Sale" is an arrangement of vessels, melons, plants, and women's accessories situated on a mirror. I see it as a wry take on yonic imagery and contemporary femininity. Does your interest in questions of gender stem from personal experience, or is it more of an academic interest?
RW: My interest is personal and academic, but I would say my personal interest drove my academic interest. I remember seeing Manet's Olympia in high school and not finding it to be much different than any other historical nude painting I'd seen. Then my art teacher explained to me how controversial it had been at the time and that sort of changed everything for me. I haven't stopped thinking about it since. A print out is hanging on my studio wall as we speak. I grew up in Columbus Ohio and was a teenager when Paris Hilton and Girls Gone Wild were big cultural phenomenons. I was always an artist (like as a 5 year old) and I watched people's willingness to take me seriously change as my body changed.
People took me more seriously at 10 than at 21. I think we do a much better job of teaching little girls that they can do anything, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to believing that young women can do anything. I eventually picked up a lot of Linda Nochlin's books, and some text books about Feminist art and started schooling myself. This wasn't until after college, however. It was around the time when I started to feel the fact of my gender acutely interfering with my professional and creative potential. The art world is still very male dominated. I generally connect well with most male artist whose work I admire, but collectors and gallerists are another story. I was always navigating power dynamics with them. They weren't used to relating to young women as people with ideas. They never knew whether to flirt with me or listen to me or give me advice. This happened with male mentors as well. They never quite knew whether to help me or come onto me, and so I was never sure if they valued my ideas. So that's how the idea of female sexuality alongside creative authority became an interesting subject to me. Culturally, we've never had a problem exalting virile male creatives. What is threatening about female desire when it comes to artistic genius?
JV: Difficult encounters are common while navigating the tricky terrain of the art world, particularly early on. Some men flirt to compensate for chronic feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. You didn't let it discourage you from painting what you want.
RW: Well what's interesting is that those encounters with collectors and dealers did begin to interfere with what I wanted to paint. They certainly made me second guess myself quite a bit. I always wondered, if my work were stronger or more "serious", could I have avoided that type of flirtatious or condescending attention. I blamed myself and my work. I only got over those feelings when my network of female artists grew, and they validated my experiences with their own. Then my work began to engaged those ideas directly, and I felt a lot more freedom.
JV: I love your painting called "Mr. X". The figure is cropped and anonymous but painted very solidly, and the still life element is vibrant and sharp. The mirror seems to connect to the mirror in "Yard Sale". And in your recent work there's a motif of circular, round, mirrored sunglasses. These mirrored surfaces must be significant...?
RW: The mirrors, and especially the sunglasses in these paintings, have something to do with control and self-possession. Sometimes the mirrors are used to distract or disorient a viewer. They also display the underside of an image if placed in a certain way. They can become alternate realities or inversions of reality. They often imply the space on the other side of the picture plane where the viewer is positioned. If the mirrored sunglasses face the viewer, they depict and determine not just the information in the painting, but also the world the viewer exists inside. The viewer also gets cast in a roll, just like the subject of the painting.
I modeled for a painting of a women washing her hair. In her sunglasses we see reflected a nighttime street scene with a car's headlights beaming back at her. We know she's in the street, and we know the viewer must be out there with her. I'm painting a relationship between the subject and viewer.
Most of the time the glasses are just small round abstract paintings that don't allow access to the female subjects' eyes. The women aren't giving the viewer a lot of attention or information about their availability. When thinking about female desire, I also consider the glasses to be a barrier to protect the woman's erotic imagination. Women learn that we should be more concerned with how well we embody the desires of others, and less concerned with our own desires. We learn this mostly through images or representations of women. Our identities as feminine or sexy depend on the second class status of our desire. The glasses give these women a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's like some sort of invisibility cloak. The glasses deny full access from the outside gaze, so the women have a space to examine their own sexuality. It creates a safe distance, or a pause in the consumption of the figure. It can be a difficult puzzle to make sexual paintings of women that don't read exclusively as a dish served up to the viewer. I'm trying to paint sexuality rather than sexiness. The sunglasses help with that.
JV: Can you tell me in more detail how collectors and dealers interfered with what you wanted to paint? I've always had people trying to influence what and how I paint. I'm usually like, "Great idea. How about YOU paint that."
RW: It's insidious and subtle. For a long time I didn't realize I was internalizing the messages I was getting. When someone objectifies you or condescends to you based on your gender, it undercuts your confidence in your work. You wonder if your work were different (better, more serious), maybe you wouldn't have received that kind of response. Then you have to define what "serious" means and who is in charge of that definition. Are there gendered implications there? What is feminine work, and what is masculine work? Is one more "serious" than the other? It wasn't as simple as someone giving me their opinion about what they thought I should paint. They were telling me what they thought of me and my potential when they hit on me. It's like they were hedging their bets. Is she more valuable as an artist or a date? They were reminding me that I was a woman painter, not just a painter. They make a comment about your looks, and you wonder why they aren't talking about your work instead. Unsolicited, they explain something to you about your work as if they're the expert. It feels like shit. It gets in your head, and you start wondering how you can avoid it instead of thinking about what's good for the work. It's not a crime to flirt with someone or to man-splain. But it is disrespectful to do so with professional artists in their studio when there is an imbalance of power involved. The work suffers in subtle ways. It's a mind fuck. Of course I kept painting. It did not put a halt to my work. But while I wrestled with it, there were definitely periods of time when painting felt kind of joyless and overly cerebral. It's a gift to be a bit older and to have more clarity in this area.
JV: Interesting. I've also found that dealers and collectors at times tried to subjugate me. When they visit they'll balance their flattering comments with devaluing comments. It's like they're trying to make you feel insecure. For example a visitor would say, "This is just beautiful, amazing painting over here," and then gesture to another section of the painting and say "But this is shit." And I got to a point where I'd just smile and say, "I'm not buying it."
These types of exchanges are so common that I think they must be a big part of what people are looking for, perhaps subconsciously, when they engage with the art world. They want to dance and wrestle and establish their place in the pecking order. I think an artist comes of age as a professional when he or she makes peace with that aspect of the art world, and figures out a way to transcend it. You seem to be doing that with your work.
RW: Yes, I couldn't agree more. In my work, I'm thinking about dynamics that are related to these power struggles. I think because of the way girls and woman are socialized to question their own authority, this can be a harder hill to climb for many of them. I find it especially interesting as subject matter for figurative painting because some portion of this socialization began with representations of the female figure in painting. These signifiers trickled into advertising and popular culture and are still alive today. The mythologies we swallow about the diminished nature of our power make us believe the art dealer who tells us our work isn't good enough. We believe the criticism for longer, or never manage to get over it at all. I really think this has a lot to do with the great disparity between male and female representation throughout the art word. Only about 20% of represented artists in galleries are women even though MFA programs are equally divided by gender. The disparity is even greater when it comes to major museum shows, and it's a huge chasm when it comes to auction sales. When we see women succeed in the art world, they still feel like the exception rather than the rule. Women can only come so far pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. If we ever want to see gender parity in the arts, people in positions of power have to start believing in the artistic authority of women.
JV: So what's next for you?
RW: I'm talking with a few galleries about group shows coming up this summer but my main focus is my solo show at PPOW Gallery in October of this year. Anyone can sign up for my mailing list on my website www.robinfwilliams.com or follow me on Instagram @robinfrancescawilliams.
JV: We've barely scratched the surface, but I have one last question before we bid adieu. You discussed the female form in art history. It goes without saying that since times of antiquity the male form has also been the subject of iconic works of art. What are your three favorite male nudes of all time?
RW: Wow, great question. Arguably, there are far fewer to choose from, but I have four! The last one isn't nude so not sure it counts, but I can't resist Manet.
-Wrestlers by Thomas Eakins
-Frank on a Rock by Dana Schutz from that series where she painted the last man on earth. I like all the paintings of Frank but that's my favorite.
-Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya
-Dead Toreador by Manet
Oh man, I forgot to mention just about any painting of a male nude by Sylvia Sleigh.
JV: Of course! Sylvia Sleigh is awesome. WM