ROBIN F. WILLIAMS STUDIO VISIT

FEBRUARY 2016

Robin F. Williams' studio is filled with paintings that are vibrant and personal, all the while relatable and somewhat fantasy-like. This body of work challenges the viewer to explore the perception of women in art. We chatted with Robin about her interest in gestures, technique, and painting women as participants not just instruments, as well as her plans for 2016. 

1.    Where do the subjects in these paintings come from?

They are imagined for the most part. I often start with a drawing and then photograph myself, or friends as reference. I pose for paintings myself frequently because I know I can capture exactly the gesture, body language or expression. The images are in my mind and body already as I’m drawing them. I feel like an animator sometimes. I just have to get the gesture down, and acting it out myself can be helpful. But beyond the source material, they are women who may or may not fit some sort of type that’s been ascribed to them. They read a little bit “girl-next-door” in the old fashioned sense. A lot of them are blondes but not any particular “type”. A few of them are a bit ambiguous in terms of gender. They are sexual women who aren’t particularly sexualized in their depictions, at least not in the traditional sense. Lots of them are acting out their own fantasies rather than embodying someone else’s.

2.    The scenery has a safe/suburban feel but also something forbidden/risque, can you talk a bit about this juxtaposition?

I think those exteriors speak to the same idea about a cultural narrative not matching an internal sense of self. The surroundings can look familiar, clean, safe and good, but identity is unstable. I like painting the gunk by the curb and the unmanicured bits, too. Those were the parts that went a little wild when left unchecked. 

3.    You’re an oil painter not afraid to experiment with technique, can you talk about the tactile quality of your work and why it’s important?

This also speaks to the earlier question. I like using a familiar medium with a certain reputation, like oil, in both expected and unexpected applications. There’s a perceived role, and an unpredictable identity to any medium. Sometimes I’m really exploiting oil paint for its old school strengths and other times I’m pasting my pallet scrapings in piles to the surface. I use gnarled house painting brushes. I use cake-frosting tools. I’ve started painting the dusk skies using acrylic on raw canvas as a stain, and combining that flatness with heavily textured oil paint. I recently stumbled on a staining technique, which involves painting the back of the canvas. I’m bringing that into a future painting. I use stencils and jigs and plastic trowels as masking devices. I like the idea of picking up a thread from history and then interrupting it with an unorthodox technique. I like that painting lets me dip in and out of history to contribute to dialogues I wouldn’t have had access to at the time. I think about early modernism a lot and how I can interrupt the way that history unfolded in a theoretical sense.

4. You talked about the distortion we have of safety as it translates to how we view ourselves and hold ourselves in art (and life for that matter), how do you think these paintings shift that perception?

Safety is a really interesting concept to me as it relates to narratives about personal identity. The women in these paintings are sometimes engaging in risky behavior. The figure washing her hair in public was inspired by the old excuse to turn down a date, "I have to stay in and wash my hair." So she’s going out to wash her hair, and parading her decision to say no, through the street. Saying “no” in subtle and overt ways can feel unsafe or out of place when it comes to established feminine roles. In that way the content speaks about safety, but I'm also investigating the idea formally. Realism is sometimes overlooked as a conscious formal decision, possibly because rendering women is one of the oldest traditions in painting. That's what makes it tricky and interesting to me. Modernism's long path toward minimalism and conceptualism really used the female figure as an intellectual proving ground until it ultimately blotted female bodies out entirely. I think there is something risky about painting women again where there is authorship and subjectivity involved. One might even be caught out in public taking a potion, saying "yes" or "no" in a painting. I want to make and see paintings of women who are being engaged with instead of acted upon. I want to make sure the subjects aren't instruments but are participants. I think that shift is important, and frankly an area that didn’t get a chance to be explored before figuration became almost a relic.

5.    You’ve had periods where you predominantly paint children, then men, now women – how do you see these individual bodies of work working together/evolving?

They came in the right order for me. They informed each other so that I could build on them. The work has always been about that anxiety of perceived vs felt identity. The kid paintings were about feeling like a child as an adult or vice versa. The men in my paintings were testing out what it might feel like to be “feminized”. The women are looking for some way to reconcile their image with authentic motivations and desires. They are all trying to be whole. Which is often what a painting is trying to be for me, whole in spite of its contradictions. I’m not sure what I’ll paint next. It always becomes obvious to me after some searching. But I have a lot more to paint with these women. 

6.    What do you have coming up in 2016?

I’m planning for this body of work to become my third solo show with PPOW, date TBD. I’m also showing some of my older work in the fall at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. I’m talking with another artist about a possible two-person show but that might not roll around until 2017. For now I’m really digging into this work and seeing where it takes me.