The Painting Looks at Us: Robin Williams’ First Solo Show

Robin Williams, in her first solo show, “Rescue Party,” at PPOW Gallery, paints flowers, cabbages, bunnies and a cow. She also paints adolescents and figures in bony, epicene, indeterminate childhood who gaze out of surreal scenes with expressions of resignation that fall somewhere between a soldier’s and a circus freak’s. Her colors are broadly schematized and metallic, as if the product of an interrupted photographic process. Her anatomy is not quite true, but this only adds to the uncanniness.

Cyclops changes the sky of Magritte’s Son of Man from blue to a rosy orange and replaces the salary man in a shapeless raincoat with a young woman whose raincoat is fashionably cut. Her face is hidden not by an apple but by a roll of paper that, crucially, reveals one blurry, bloodshot eye. We are not merely looking at this painting–this painting is looking at us. Or at least, it’s aware of us. The man in aluminum blanket and helmet of flowers and cotton balls in Tired Prince, likewise, looks not at us but over our right shoulder, and the figure in Flowercap points her eyes, covered with orange asters, over our left. They are both self-consciously posing.

They are also both, like all of Ms. Williams’ characters, suffused with a free-floating, pre-Oedipal sexuality. In Swoon at the Water Pump, a girl in a blue dress out of Alice in Wonderland lies supine in the grass between the pump and an empty, overturned bucket. Under her skirt, surrounding her legs, is an enormous mass of gauzy, intricately folded pink petticoats. As with flowers, there are undoubtedly organs of generation somewhere under the folds, but the sexual act itself takes place in the air. In Cabbage Patch, an impossibly long-legged boy, white like an ash-covered holy man, keeps watch with three white rabbits. In Milking, a topless girl in green suspenders presses her face against a cow, averting her eyes as she makes an X with two jets of milk.

And in Rescue Party, the title painting, six children–or maybe four children and their two young parents–ride an inflatable green kiddie pool across their front lawn toward some obscure, unreachable destination. The sky behind them is a pale teal, and their house is a nocturnal silhouette. The girls wear orange print dresses; the boys are topless or naked; and all of them are greenish-white, not like corpses or ghosts, but like after-images. (In most of these paintings, it is the flowers, not the human beings, that seem most alive.) These after-image beings look neither to the right nor to the left, but out of the frame, behind us. Ms. Williams uses imagery that draws equally on art history and on advertising, in a borrowed, not yet fully developed language, but her children are going somewhere, even if we can’t see where.

“L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’Etre” (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), inspired by the Kundera novel of the same title, is an enormous group show that stretches over both of Yvon Lambert’s galleries, in Paris and in New York. In New York, a Bruce Nauman print called Shit and Die–it says “Shit and Die”–establishes the terms: big issues, light treatment. Amid dozens of photographs, sculptures, ceramics, videos and prints, two pieces leap out. Theo Mercier’s les derrières de la scène (Behind the scene) puts three disembodied butts on solemn black pedestals with radiating crowns of peacock feathers. Close by, on the floor, a monitor plays a jerky, accelerated video of still images from Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater die Aktionen. A brass band changes places rapidly with an eviscerated lamb, a naked woman strapped to a cross drinking blood, pretty white geese, tanks, red tomatoes, people marching in the mountains, puddles of yellow egg yolk, a pile of brains and the artist himself, barrel-shaped, bearded and looking like an orthodox priest, painting huge red and black sprays on white canvases. Cheery, martial music drifts across the floor.



The Painting Looks at Us: Robin Williams’ First Solo Show