In Conversation with Robin F. Williams: Using Provocation and Power in her Female-Focused Paintings
Robin F. Williams is a feminist painter breaking down ideas around femininity, sexuality, and gender roles by challenging these preconceived ideas through her portraits. Her works are intimate with the positions and scenarios she depicts her subjects in, and her paintings have a distinctly contemporary feeling through the various processes she uses in a single work. I was privileged enough to speak to Robin and delve deeper into her motivation, techniques, and the 1970s advertising that inspired this series. All of which can be seen in her latest exhibition, 'Your Good Taste is Showing', currently on view at P.P.O.W. Gallery.
Alexandria Deters: I really enjoyed your current exhibit 'Your Good Taste is Showing', which is your third solo show with P.P.O.W. Gallery. What does this show mean to you this time around?
Robin F. Williams: I had a lot of time to prepare for this show, over three years. There were points when I felt impatient to get this work out there, but in the end, the time was really valuable. When something didn’t work, I could regroup and move on without worrying about a deadline. I was really able to edit and curate this show. If I’m honest, this is the type of work I’ve wanted to make for years, but did not yet know how. Now it’s opened up a lot more possibilities. This work really helped me learn to trust my instincts. I had time for experimentation and time to take a lot of risks. That’s something I’ve felt very proud of in this work.
For this exhibit you were drawn to ads targeting women in the 1970s. What were some of your favorite ads that you discovered and how did you find them?
I found most of the ads that influenced this work on the Internet. I do have a small collection of vintage Playgirl magazines, which may have contributed to some of my ideas. It’s hard to identify a favorite ad, because I was mostly responding to images that gave me a queasy feeling. The title of the show is lifted from the copy in a Kent cigarette ad, “your good taste is showing!” It pictures a smiling black woman holding a cigarette. She’s styled to vaguely resemble a Dutch Renaissance painting like Vermeer's 'Girl with the Pearl Earring'. The ad was communicating a lot of covert messages about race, class, and sex appeal. I suspected the ad was put together by white men, just like most of the historically relevant paintings of women we see in museums. It felt to me like the language and messaging in European oil painting had been adopted by advertising. So I combined the content of this ad with a composition from a Balthus painting of a little girl flashing her underwear at the viewer. I could recycle the language and messaging of the ad back into a painting to serve my own creative purposes. The woman in the painting is angry, smoking two cigarettes at once; one cigarette looks like the middle finger. She’s sexual, but not passive. She definitely knows what’s going on, how her image has been used. She’s reclaiming and subverting the tone of the ad to send her own message.
"People decide who women are based on their style. Sometimes getting dressed feels like a celebration, sometimes it feels like a trap."
I feel like fashion played a big role in this exhibit, we see the subjects in pastel outfits, wearing chrome shades, and sexy heels. Can you talk more about this?
My paintings aren’t so much about women, as they are about images of women. If that’s the idea, then fashion felt like an inevitable theme. Women communicate with their clothes (or lack of clothes). People decide who women are based on their style. Sometimes getting dressed feels like a celebration, sometimes it feels like a trap. I liked the idea of painting 'nudes' naked except for their accessories. A belt, heels, some shades…those items highlight the intentionality behind the nudity. I did not want to make more images of naked women to be taken at face value. The sunglasses were a way for the figures to say, “I decide what to show you, but I’m not going to reassure you with my eyes.” The viewer doesn’t get to look without feeling unsure. I also put a figure in a paper bag as a fashion statement that says, “I don’t give a fuck.” The painting is called 'Bag Lady'. Women who don’t give a fuck are thought to be crazy people. Sometimes not giving a fuck is the only sane reaction to a set of impossible cultural standards.
"Women who don’t give a fuck are thought to be crazy people. Sometimes not giving a fuck is the only sane reaction to a set of impossible cultural standards."
One of the aspects I am fascinated by in your works is the texture of the paintings. What is your process for this technique?
A lot of research and development went into the surfaces, so I can’t give you all my trade secrets! But I’ll say that I was trying to work on every level of the surface. I came up with ways to stain raw canvas, soaking the color into the fabric. I used a lot of airbrush to set like a photo finish just on top of the surface. My oil painting practice has become about exposing brushstrokes and building up their ridges with very dry paint. I’ve also used various acrylic mediums for other built up textural effects. I’m also drawing, using oil sticks and oil pastels on top of these surfaces. I’m trying to play all these different treatments against each other so that they create interesting boundaries and edges within a painting. I want them layered and woven together but also distinct. The paintings had to be very planned out to execute the different applications of oil and acrylic. There were stages in the process that could not be undone, since acrylic can’t be painted over oil, and highly textured areas cannot be adjusted. Certain things can’t be corrected or fussed over unlike a painting that’s strictly oil. I didn’t expect this to give me more freedom, but that’s what happened. Once I executed one area I had to decide if it worked. My only other option was to start over (which I sometimes did). There was a lot of closure after every stage of a painting. I didn’t have to second-guess myself, I just knew the only thing to do was the next phase. I’d get excited to see how something would turn out every time. I also helped myself out by making lots of small-scale studies and tests. The entire process was like a very fun experiment.
All of your works in 'Your Good Taste is Showing' is of women, except for one of a cat, 'Bather'. What made you want to include this work in the show?
Well, there is also a cat pictured in the painting I described earlier, 'Your Good Taste Is Showing', I first painted that cat and discovered a new masking technique with the airbrush to create the fur. I wanted to see how far I could take that technique so I decided to paint another cat. Bathing women have been a familiar trope in painting’s history. In the piece 'Spa Night', I painted some bathers myself. It seems to be subject matter that reappears throughout movements, or even denotes the birth of new movements. It certainly played a big role in modernism. I wanted to make a little joke about that. Cats bathe by licking themselves and have been used in paintings to signify the presence of female sexuality. I also find it fascinating that the Internet overwhelmingly favors images of naked women as well as cats. They seem connected in our subconscious. Painting the cat was another way to give the viewer exactly what they wanted without really giving them what they wanted at all.
Now that 2017 is coming close to its end, what is next on your agenda in 2018?
I’m in a killer group show coming up in Milan at Brand New Gallery opening November 30th, which I’m very excited about. I’m also scheduling a few artist talks for the coming year. Right now I’m really just taking a breather and enjoying the accomplishment of this solo show. I have a lot more ideas for paintings, so I’ll get back to work pretty soon. I’m excited to see what happens.
'Your Good Taste is Showing' will be on view through November 11, 2017 at P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York.
Follow Robin F. Williams on Instagram: @robinfrancescawilliams