Robin F. Williams Revels in the Craft of Painting
Portrait of Robin F. Williams by Bryan Derballa. Courtesy of the artist and P·P·O·W, New York.
On a Monday afternoon in late February, Robin F. Williams is bubbling with enthusiasms. Her focus is liable to zoom off in a dozen directions, from the gendered nature of iPhone assistants to the awkward iconography of classic Newport cigarette ads.
When we meet, her studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is full of sketches and studies and canvases featuring women, many of them destined for a solo exhibition at P.P.O.W in New York next year. There’s a woman playing tug-o’-war while sucking on a vape, a group of women giggling and leering from behind a pole (“stalkers,” she tells me). There’s a ghost giving birth, because why not? Williams is excited—both about what the paintings mean, and how she makes them—and it’s hard not to get carried away along with her.
Robin F. Williams, Vaping in the Rain, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Williams began her career as something of a realist. A 2014 exhibition focused on portraits of young men in landscapes; the color palette was lightly psychedelic, but otherwise, things seemed pretty true to life. These days, she’s swimming in stranger waters.
Recent works appropriate found photographs and other images, but complicate and confound them. A famous shot of Britney Spears at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, singing “I’m A Slave 4 U” while wearing a live snake around her neck, becomes the source material for Leave Britney Alone (2019), a nude portrait: teeth bared, skin flecked with red and blue spots. Film stills from movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)and Pulp Fiction (1994) are a launchpad for feverishly cerebral meditations on female agency, artificial intelligence, and the #MeToo era. (More on those later.)
Robin F. Williams, Leave Britney Alone, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and P·P·O·W, New York.
As her subject matter has evolved, so has her process. Williams is deeply invested in the notion of what “craft,” and being “crafty,” means. Though she holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, she’s now more liable to draw on YouTube tutorials than on her formal art education.
After becoming obsessed with the stain-painting prowess of Helen Frankenthaler, Williams fell into a rabbit hole of online videos that unpacked the method step-by-step. By now, she’s basically got the hang of it. A work in progress in the studio, tentatively titled Bechdel Yetis—a wink and a nod to the Bechdel Test, which measures whether a film contains any scenes of women alone, not talking about men—features figures with stain-painted skin, which resembles a kind of “weird monster fur,” Williams says.
Robin F. Williams, Hang in There Baby, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Robin F. Williams, Side Eye Tie Dye, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Other tutorials have opened up further worlds. She’s been experimenting with a poured-paint technique that achieves a faux-marble appearance; that one will come in handy when depicting a new series of divers, whose bodies she wants to look like “airborne stone sculptures.”
Williams’s curiosity with this world of YouTube education goes beyond how easy it is to learn new tricks; her interest is somewhat sociological, too. The paint-pouring method, for instance, involves mixing acrylic pigment with K-Y Jelly lubricant—and YouTubers, almost all of them women, can get a little uncomfortable discussing that fact. “There’s all this puritanical, American, repressed sexuality in [the videos],” Williams says. Meanwhile, instructional clips for airbrushing (another of her go-to techniques) and flocking (a highly toxic way of adding a soft, fuzzy texture to a surface, one that she has yet to try out) are mostly led by men.
Robin F. Williams, Weathervane, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
The artist might not have a sharply defined thesis about what this all means—how floating ideas of gender intersect with notions of various crafts—but these things somehow bubble up in the paintings. “I want them to look crafty,” Williams says, reveling in how the adjective can seem like a slur, since it’s “domestic, feminine…and witch-like.” Crafty, after all, conjures images of that suburban art-supply megastore, Michael’s; visions of hobbyists and Sunday dabblers.
“Everybody has access to that type of painting,” the artist adds, “so it takes the mystery out of the ‘artist genius’ archetype—which I like.”
Still, she’s quick to admit that what she does is pretty damn complicated. “How do the edges work?” is a question she constantly runs up against, since a single canvas might involve multiple types of paint, each with its own quirks and needs, plus yards of masking tape. Williams compares her process to training for a sporting event: “You learn how to do it, and then it’s game day—you have to execute it, and most of the time, you have one shot,” she says. Still, I’m left with the impression that the difficulty is half the fun—that she takes a certain pleasure in making life in the studio unpredictable, in flirting with failure.
Robin F. Williams, Alexa Plays Ball, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Williams is one of those painters who will gladly geek out over process; she talks a lot about problem-solving and puzzles. The artist can narrate the touch-and-go precarity of the aforementioned poured-paint technique with real drama, both daunted and amazed by what certain materials want to do. But she’s equally invested in the leftfield references and associative leaps that are sprinkled throughout her work: the images themselves, and the stories behind them.
Consider one recently finished painting in the studio: a depiction of a horrified-looking Gwenyth Paltrow, as seen in the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley. Williams sets the scene for me: Paltrow’s character has just realized the depths of Ripley’s crimes, as he confronts her while wearing a bath towel, which soon falls off. It’s a striking moment, and one well worth painting simply for the nuances of Paltrow’s expression, but Williams’s interest in the image tunnels down, down, down into entirely new territory.
Robin F. Williams, Reading, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Robin F. Williams, Kool-Aid Sipper, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Partially inspired by an essay on Paltrow in the New York Times, Williams let her imagination run wild. She was already fixated on the iPhone and Amazon virtual assistants, Siri and Alexa, and was keen to picture what these AI bots might actually look like. Why not embody them through avatars, she thought—women from various films whose real lives and their fictional roles intersect in uncanny ways?
That’s how she came to earlier portraits of Siri, including one that places the AI personality inside Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If Siri is a woman trapped in a system, unable to escape, Williams thought, wouldn’t it make sense to relate her to actresses who were similarly ensnared?
This can all get a bit tangled, albeit in an invigorating way. In Williams’s rendition, the plot of Rosemary’s Baby overlaps with the later crimes of its director Roman Polanski, and Farrow’s own marriage to Woody Allen; meanwhile, the painting of Paltrow relates to the actress’s own involvement in the Harvey Weinstein saga, and the rapist-producer’s penchant for strutting around in bath towels.
Robin F. Williams, Siri Defends Her Honor, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and P·P·O·W, New York.
If you’re confused, don’t worry. These paintings certainly don’t require an explanatory key to decipher. It’s more than possible to simply enjoy the drama of Williams’s line, or the way she mingles different painterly gestures and textures. Take, for instance, the thick swirl of Paltrow’s hair, juxtaposed against the flat, airbrushed pinkness of her face.
Another painting in the studio, which is still in progress, depicts a deliriously grinning woman on a swing. Williams conceived of the composition as a literal mash-up of two different styles of Monet paintings; she tells me she went to MoMA on a research excursion, to “put [her] nose in” the originals. (The results wouldn’t fool a Monet scholar, for sure. “This is like if you were in a car,” she laughs, “and you drove by a Monet painting really fast.”)
Robin F. Williams, Ice Queen, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
Robin F. Williams, Alive with Pleasure, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul; and P·P·O·W, New York.
In this painting, she’s combined stain-painting, airbrush effects, and a sort of rough, lumpy background texture, achieved by laying down acrylic modeling paste with the kind of paint roller you can buy at Home Depot. I told Williams that what it reminds me of more than anything else is the vaguely ’80s-chic paint application on the walls of my mother-in-law’s bathroom in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thankfully, she’s far from insulted by the comparison.
“I don’t want to be concerned with how ‘high’ or ‘low’ it is,” Williams says. “In fact, I like the challenge of making things sit next to each other that look like they shouldn’t.” The artist’s unruly, untamed women hang out somewhere in this sweet spot. It’s a joy to watch them, and to wonder where they’ll go next.