Framed: Robert Williams Celebrates the Decline of Sophistication

Outsider legend Robert Williams presents his first body of new work in six years at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery

On a wall panel introducing Slang Aesthetics!, a big exhibition of new work by Robert Williams at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, the artist cites Picasso’s dictum that “Sophistication is the greatest enemy of imagination.” Williams also strikes a blow against the tyranny of art world theoretical pretensions in one of the show’s centerpieces, his 5 ½-foot tall painting “The Decline of Sophistication.”

At the bottom of the painting, the imposing “Institute of Savoir Faire,” presumably a breeding ground of artistic and academic sophistication, is shown to be nothing but a propped-up cardboard façade fronting a colorless tent on an abandoned landscape. Rising out of that tent, the spectral vision of a tombstone marks the death of “urbane sophistication” in 1994, the year Williams founded the popular art magazine Juxtapoz.

"Decline of Sophistication" by Robert Williams
“Decline of Sophistication” by Robert Williams

In front of the tombstone a monkey playing with a tasseled cap offers apple pie to an outstretched arm that weaves its way through nine boxes arrayed across the top of the painting, each one containing a distinctly unsophisticated cartoon-like scene. At the end of this string of framed images, the pie slice eventually gets handed to a young woman in a passionate embrace with her boyfriend, who accepts and then, we may guess, eats the proffered apple (pie). With the new knowledge gained from this forbidden fruit, perhaps, the art world is ready to be freed.

“The academic art world takes pride in banners of sophistication,” Williams asserts. “It’s an armed fortress that has to be breached.”

Moving from one to another of the dozens of paintings by Williams in Slang Aesthetics is “like walking through a comic book,” the artist says. Unlike what a lot of the “dry, boring, and stoic” movements championed by art schools and critics throughout most of the 20th century have produced, the work that Williams creates, and that Juxtapoz champions, is downright “feral art, art that’s raised itself out of the wilderness, art that’s going to survive on its own.”

Along with Slang Aesthetics! in the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, the complementary 20 Years Under the Influence show, curated by Andrew Hosner of Thinkspace and Gary Pressman of the Copro Gallery, presents work by 100 or so additional artists featured in Juxtapoz over the last two decades.