How did contemporary art legend Robert Williams wind up in a big show at a scrappy, nonprofit art collective in downtown Santa Ana?

Two years ago, a member of the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art asked him at a book signing if he’d be interested, and he said yes.

The result — two years later — is “The Visual Adventures of Robert Williams,” a collection of painted skateboards, prints, an original oil painting, hand-painted Vans sneakers, a 1932, painted Ford Roadster and more by the godfather of “lowbrow” art and co-founder of the influential Juxtapoz magazine.

“Visual Adventures” also features a group show of artists influenced by Williams’ work, including Jennybird Alcantara, Anthony Ausgang, Adrian Cox, Craig Gleason, Naoto Hattori, Laurie Lipton, Amber McCall, Shane Mesquit, Dustin Myers, Greg “Craola” Simkins, Jaime “Germs” Zacarias and others. 

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“(OCCCA member) Brennan Roach seemed to feel like it would be an opportunity to get me down there in that space,” said Williams, 78, during a recent interview. “It’s a beautiful, wonderful gallery down there. They called me up about two years ago. We discussed what it would be — much more casual, a print show, some skateboards, rather than load it up with oil paintings. It’s a wonderful, casual show. With prints, I could put the best works in there. I could select some of my more adventurous works. I couldn’t be happier with it.”

Roach, an artist, musician and Santa Ana resident, said he and many other artists have been profoundly influenced by the congenial, yet irreverent artist who has lived in Chatsworth for the past 19 years.

“It’s really beautiful,” Roach, 35, said about Williams’ work. “It’s got a cartoon aspect to it, but it’s finely, finely crafted. It does have a fine-arts aspect to it. And it reads both ways, which is kinda cool, and considering the generation that we grew up in, we grew up with a ton of cartoons. As a kid growing up, I would only pay attention to the cartoons where I appreciated the art.” 

Roach co-curated the exhibition with his wife, Liz Zuniga, and fellow artist Dustin Myers.

“A lot of people are influenced by him, and they might not even know him,” Zuniga said about Williams.

‘Lowbrow’ vs. Pop Surrealism

 Williams brought the term “lowbrow” into the art world lexicon with his 1979 book, “The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams.” Academics and other observers in the art world have come to call “lowbrow” art “Pop Surrealism,” although Williams doesn’t particularly love the label.

“My art is really not associated with Surrealism,” he said. “It doesn’t meet the manifestos of Surrealism. ‘Pop Surrealism’ is a nice, tame name if you have to tell somebody what kind of art you do. But the Surrealist movement was filled with a bunch of communists, extremists and psychopaths.

“Pop is a whole different animal. Appropriating things, and pushing it back in the public’s face. Well, this kind of art isn’t like that. This is a narrative, like an underground comic, like an art book.”

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The kind of lowbrow art that Williams and his cohorts do basically combines high media (oil, acrylic, gouache, canvas) with “low” subject matter. The scenes are often realistic and representational, not necessarily surreal, and can be graphic, profane, outrageous, hilarious, violent and cartoon-like.   

Subject matter can be edgy, cute or gross, or perhaps a combination of these elements. There’s an emphasis on color, detail and accurate dimensions.

A Look at His Past

Williams was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1943. His father, Robert Wandell Williams, owned a drive-in restaurant called The Parkmore, which was frequented by hot rodders. That’s where the young Williams developed a love for car and hot rod culture.

Williams moved to Los Angeles in 1963, and took art classes at Los Angeles City College and the California Institute of the Arts (formerly the Chouinard Art Institute). In art school, he was branded an “illustrator,” which was meant to be an insult. 

Williams got his first big break in 1965 working for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, producing graphics and advertisements and sometimes painting hot rods. He grew an affinity for what he calls “West Coast outlaw culture.”

In 1969, Williams joined the team of artists working for Zap Comix, an underground comics series that was affiliated with the young counterculture of the late 1960s. Some of the Zap Comix artists included Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Gilbert Shelton and Victor Moscoso.

“Those Zap artists are my best friends,” Williams said. “We had to be close. It was a crazy time. Zap is the first — everything else is a copy after that.”

A giclee of the Zap No. 5 cover, illustrated by Williams, is featured in “The Visual Adventures.” It features a mix of sci-fi, clown, classic and semi-profane imagery, and warns in the top right-hand corner, “Adults Only!”  

Williams associated with the punk rock movement in the 1980s, and his 1978 painting, “Appetite for Destruction,” was used as the original cover art for the 1987 Guns N’ Roses album of the same name. After some major opposition and blowback (the work features an apparent sexual assault on a barely clothed woman and a mechanized monster coming to wreak havoc on the attacker), Geffen Records decided to push the image inside, as a centerfold to the liner notes.

Williams continued to paint and publish books, always challenging the established narrative of what is considered fine art. He gained the attention of some respectable galleries, as well as celebrity collectors, such as Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio, Debbie Harry and Timothy Leary.

Over the years, Williams has been featured in dozens of group and solo shows, including the prestigious 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York. Here in Orange County, he has enjoyed an enthusiastic following and a number of exhibitions, including “Robert Williams: New York” at the Huntington Beach Art Center in 1998; “Best Intentions” at the Grand Central Art Center in 2001; “In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor” at Laguna Art Museum in 2008; and “Two Schools of Cool” at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2011.

Williams’ 1968 painting, “In the Land of Retinal Delights,” was one of the key inspirations behind the eponymous Laguna Art Museum show in 2008, and was used as the catalog cover art. A print of that painting — with its unforgettable gigantic eye sticking out of a suited man’s face — is also in the OCCCA show.

From the Sidelines to the Mainstream

Perhaps one of Williams’ biggest contributions is co-founding Juxtapoz magazine in 1994, along with Craig Stecyk, Greg Escalante and Eric Swenson. The magazine identifies and celebrates urban alternative and underground art, and has helped launch the careers of dozens of artists, including Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, Alex Gross and KAWS (Brian Donnelly).

Artist Robert Williams in 1995. Credit: Photo courtesy of Gary Pressman

 Juxtapoz has grown from an alternative mag to become the highest circulation art magazine in the United States.

“Juxtapoz started out wild, lurid and lustful,” Williams said. “It just sold right out of the chute. It went from quarterly to bimonthly to monthly. It has lost a bit of that underground rawness. But I keep in contact with them. I was a founder, and one of the owners. But I don’t use the power of editorial. I am not a magazine editor. But it has helped so many artists. Two or three of them are millionaires.”  

The artists in the OCCCA group show demonstrate in their work how Williams has influenced them. But they also take “lowbrow” to different levels, heights and lows.

A few, like Big Toe, pay direct tribute to Williams, his Zap Comix style and his 1932 hot rod. Others explore fantastical, psychedelic and even surreal subject matter. Animals and cartoon characters appear frequently in their paintings.

A number of the artists hail from Southern California, but a few reside in places such as Japan, Australia and Barcelona, Spain.

“I learned a lot about shipping and insurance, doing this show,” co-curator Roach quipped.

Williams said he’s seen the work by the other artists in the show, and he’s honored to have influenced them in some way.

“I think this is one of the more important elements of the whole thing,” he said. “There’s some fairly well-known artists in there, some very talented artists in there.

‘The Visual Adventures of Robert Williams’

Where: Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore St., Santa Ana

When: Through Jan. 29; hours for this show only are noon-5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Cost: Free

Information: (714) 667-1517, occca.org or rwgroupshow.com

“If there’s nothing else I get out of this show, the gratitude I’ve felt from them is enough.” 

On Jan. 8, OCCCA held an opening reception for Williams and the artists, which was preceded by a screening of the 2010 documentary “Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin” at the Frida Cinema in downtown Santa Ana.

Both were well attended, although COVID precautions were firmly in place. The pervasive spread of the Omicron variant has really put a damper on public events and gatherings throughout Orange County, the nation and the world.   

Those who entered OCCCA had to wear masks, get their temperatures checked and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result. 

Because of his age and condition, Williams participated in a private Q & A before the reception, which was live-streamed online and archived on YouTube. However, he left before the public entered OCCCA, which may have left some superfans (he has quite a few) disappointed.  

“They were lining up outside to watch,” Zuniga said. “I think our timing for the opening here couldn’t have been worse.”

“We couldn’t have been more happy, considering the circumstances we were in,” Roach added.

“The Visual Adventures of Robert Williams” runs through Jan. 29.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.


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