‘Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil’

What is art? Robert Williams’s collected essays from the culture-busting ‘Juxtapoz’ magazine still challenge our preconceptions

What is art? This simple, centuries-old question has been the cause of more arguments (and even more than a little violence) than nearly any other subject you could name outside of religion and politics. For many people, art is what they like…and what they don’t like, well, it’s probably not art. As Robert Williams points out in Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil: The Collective Writings of Robert Williams, the question really isn’t all that simple.

Williams has legit claims to authority on the subject. After attending the California Institute of the Arts, where they derogatorily labeled him an “illustrator,” he dropped out of school and became a commercial artist. Williams designed containers for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation and served as the Art Director for the martial arts magazine Black Belt before finding his “dream job,” working with hot rod culture royalty Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, creating advertisements and T-shirt graphics for Roth’s various publications. He began dabbling in oil painting, creating what he called “Super Cartoon” paintings in the style of the old masters, using handmade paints and splashing on layer upon layer of varnish to create depth and vitality to the work.

Williams joined the Zap Comix artist collective with issue number four in 1970, creating his own underground icon in Coochy Cooty, a character that appeared in several issues of Zap Comix as well as in his own title, Coochy Cooty Men’s Comics, and even in many of the artist’s future paintings. Many of Williams’ “Super Cartoon” paintings appeared in the 1982 book The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams, published by Rip Off Press, which Last Gasp also recently reissued in paperback. During the 1980s, Williams became involved with, and influenced the free-wheeling, anarchic punk art movement, and he launched his gallery career with showings at sympathetic venues like the La Luz de Jesus Gallery and the Tamara Bane Gallery. In 1994, he helped launch Juxtapoz magazine to showcase underground art and culture.

Ink, Blood, and Linseed Oil

Juxtapoz first published many of the 66 essays included in Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil published as introductions to each issue of the influential, culture-busting magazine. Written from 1994 through 2006, these essays – running from roughly 400 to as much as 800 words or more – see Williams musing on the nature of art, its place in society, the calling of the artist, and the failings of the many ‘gatekeepers’ of the art world. They designed the magazine to showcase and promote non-mainstream talents; in one essay, Williams writes “Juxtapoz sells energy, imagination and blatant anxiety strained into oblique but legible communications – not utopia,” cheekily asking the magazine’s readership, “alas, verily, are we not all liberal arts scoundrels?”

One of the most thought-provoking conversations running throughout Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil is that of change and inclusion in the face of institutional indifference. For the magazine’s fifth anniversary in 1999, Williams posits that “in a cold and pedantic academic art world, a fixed system of rights and wrongs has been inadvertently established by an authoritarian consensus of museum directors, funding boards, special interest galleries, biased art critics, conforming artists, and a bovine buying market in general…the current attitude of international modern art has shown its favoritism towards artists who practice the doctrine of theoretical assemblage over emotional and technical physically produced expression. Consequently, artists with hands-on ability and imagination have long ago been encouraged to seek expression in the un-arts (commercial art).”

In layman’s terms, the contemporary art establishment has long favored (and taught) the abstract and conceptual over skill, technique, and unbridled creativity. As Williams wrote in The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams, in a sort of precursor to his later Juxtapoz essays, “most of these Fine Arts graduates, while very well educated, cannot draw, can hardly paint, and have docile imaginations, even though they have learned to be sensitive and artistic.” The “serious” art world considers representational art, such as Drew Friedman’s portraiture (to name but one example), no more than Cro-mag cave paintings, and holds comic art, which may well be the most popular artistic media that most people experience, beneath contempt.

Williams considered Juxtapoz to be a partial remedy to the barriers constructed by the Fine Arts world, as many considerably talented artists work and create without the official imprimatur of an MFA degree. He agrees, however, that better marketing of underground art would be beneficial, starting with a more descriptive name than “lowbrow art,” a term he’s never liked.

He writes: “critics, academics, and historians almost insist on having an authorized appellation to hang their nuts on. The problem is that if you don’t have a scholastically sanctioned manifesto espousing a trick name, these shortsighted pipe-cleaner spines will give this movement one of their own. And believe me, it will probably be so embarrassing and dippy that it will make you want to go back to your day job.” In a 2015 interview with Carolina A. Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, Williams says “I prefer the term ‘feral art.’ It’s had to raise itself out in the wilderness.”

Interior page of ‘Ink, Blood, and Linseed Oil,’ a collection of the writings of artist Robert A. Williams.

Williams is the first to admit that the fringe art movement that he helped midwife is stung with horrible, pigeonholing labels like “Lowbrow Art, Pop Surrealism, Outlaw Art, Alternative Art, Outsider Art, Art Nadir” and around a dozen other descriptions that lead to the conclusion that “I can imagine that with monikers like these, stuffy, self-lauding art blusterers would rather delete these phrases from their cocktail party chatter.” He suggests instead that rather than let the Fine Art world hang an albatross around their necks, that if artists “can completely disregard what people think and allow abstraction to precede moral decency, titles will find themselves.” At the same time, Williams points out the major pitfall of art as a career, nomenclature aside. “Coldly stated, art that is monetarily successful is a business. Art that economically flounders is a hobby.”

Williams writes that “less than one percent of all artists make ninety-nine percent of the big money. The other romantic ninety-nine percent of the artists are living off the anticipated glory of their imagined posthumous rewards. Unfortunately, of all the wonderful words we connect to the arts, ‘equity’ is not one of them.” Nevertheless, Williams provides readers (and aspiring artists) with the benefit of his experience and knowledge; if you’re going to make art, you’re going to have to have some little business sense, and the old pro offers his perspectives to make this (distasteful) aspect of creativity more palatable, discussing galleries, patrons, critics, and other potential landmines that the young artist must maneuver.

Williams’ writing throughout Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil is self-effacing, humorous, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek. The cover of the issue it originally appeared in accompanies each essay, providing readers with a glimpse of the talents of such multi-faceted artists as Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, Todd Schorr, Shepard Fairey, Charles Burns, and heavy metal art legend Pushead, among others. As a “lifer,” Williams is under no illusion as to the role of the artist throughout history. “Just exactly how important is an artist in our society?” he rhetorically asks. “There is no other segment of society that is more nonessential than the artists, unless maybe it’s the poets.” Still, Williams continues to write occasionally for Juxtapoz and, at 79 years old, still makes art with the brilliance and vivid imagination that he first displayed almost six decades ago.

As Juxtapoz magazine approaches its 30th anniversary, little has changed in the art world aside from the commercial ascendence of comics-influenced movies and the begrudging growth in popularity of “outsider” artists, partially due to the publication’s continuously-increasing circulation and influence on a certain, special sort of creative mind. Artists are still starving, and the barriers erected by the Fine Arts world to “others” remain mostly intact. But with the growth of the Internet (something only hinted at in Williams’ earliest essays) and a sustainable counter-culture with a few dollars to spend on crowdfunded projects, it’s easier than ever for the visual artist to create their audience outside of patrons, galleries, and such. During its lifespan, Juxtapoz has become the highest-circulation publication of its type, vaulting past such longtime Fine Arts stalwarts as Art In America and ArtForum, largely due to Williams’ influence and vision.

What is art? It’s a question that Robert Williams struggles with throughout the essays featured in Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil, even as he worked to showcase the most unlikely of art and artists in the magazine he helped create. Williams has never pursued a personal artistic vision that is in sync with cultural trends, but he’s long been an advocate of providing the visual arts with the same latitude and anarchic freedom that we do for literature, music, and movies. For anybody interested in art that exists on the fringes of ‘polite’ society, Williams’ essays in Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil provide plenty of food for thought and echo with as much truth today as when they were first written.

For more information on Robert Williams’ Ink, Blood and Linseed Oil, check out the Last Gasp website.

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

Rev. Keith A. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with nearly 50 years of experience writing about music, the media, comics and pop culture for publications like Rock and Roll Globe, Blues Music magazine, and Blurt and is the author of nearly two dozen books.

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