Heart, mind, art and Feminism: In conversation with Robin F. Williams
From pop stars to politicians to slogans printed in $700 high-end fashion designer T-shirts, the whole “4th wave” Feminist Movement has been twisted and turned many times to fit political agendas and sell out arenas. The conversation of what “feminism” means brims with contradiction: what does it entail to be a feminist nowadays? Why do some women proudly call themselves staunch feminists but in practice fail to support their own gender? Is it sufficient to fight for equal rights without adding a dimension of spirituality and warmth and not lose some battleground for being perceived as “soft”? And then add the art world, the supposed “gender-blind” haven that doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo either about gender equality, whether it’s equal pricing of art or support by collectors, curators and gallerists.
Luckily, there are artists who are using the power of their work to speak up from a place of intuition using both heart and mind. It's a combination that shouldn’t be mutually exclusive and one that Robin F. Williams addresses so well. What follows is a condensed and edited version of a conversation that I had with Robin in her studio during the last days of summer while she was preparing for her upcoming solo show at PPOW Gallery in New York City.
Maria Brito: So tell me, what are the underlying tenets of feminism that you like to explore in your paintings?
Robin F. Williams: I’ve always been interested in painting the figure. I painted a lot of children in school without having to get into the gender issue. Then I started to paint men and look at the ideas of American masculinity. I wanted to invert the roles of the American identity, like an alternate reality, who-gets-to-paint-who. The paintings didn’t have a narrative of the conquering hero male, typical of American history, but I presented men in a more romanticized way. Then I started this new body of work which is the most difficult but also the most rewarding.
MB: Why is it the most difficult?
RFW: As a female artist, painting female bodies is a very well-tread territory. There are lots of catch-22s here about female authority and authorship, like women as subject instead of the object, and you can get really in your head about it. I approached some of these women with humor which frees me up a lot, but I wanted to focus on mixed messages: being a female artist, talking about female desire, and being sexual, although most of these paintings are about desires, any desire. In regards to feminine identity, we hear all the time these messages that say: “it’s better if you want less”, “it’s not good to be so ambitious”, “the less you aspire, the better it will be”. That’s not how I grew up, but as I heard more and saw more of the coded, sneaky messages that women and men tell each other, it allowed me to see that this is how things work. All these new paintings have a lot of things going on, especially contradictions: what if they are too sexy, what if they are opposing a feminist movement of not having to conform to male-imposed standards of beauty - these are all traps that have been created for women.
MB: Extreme rationalization of the work of an artist is also a trap, because you aren’t a random person who decided to paint the figure; you went to school, you know process and art history, and you have your own visual language within a world of figuration. And art is what exists within you. I find it very oppressive that we can’t do whatever we want because of very passive-aggressive standards invented by men but supported by women. “You can’t have it all”, or “You can’t be smart and sexy at the same time because nobody will take you seriously” or “Watch what you post on Instagram or how much skin you reveal, because what are men going to think?" And women will trash you too for this. A lot of the oppression comes from other women, super double standards.
RFW: Female sexuality is a very threatening thing to put out in the world.
MB: But if anybody is going to go out in the world and call themselves “feminists” they have to start by accepting that human beings, especially women, are not one thing or another - that because someone posts a picture of their bodies on Instagram, whatever way that body looks, that doesn’t and shouldn’t take away their credibility in what they do - whether they are teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists or art advisors. We have changed too much to conform to anybody’s idea of the path to follow or incongruent rules, especially creative people who have talent and something to say. Also, the continuum of art history that claims for people like you to be inserted in a specific spot following a certain tradition is a total entrapment.
RFW: Absolutely. This new body of work is more exploration of mixed media and feels freer to me, even from a medium standpoint as I’m using oil instead of acrylic. For example, in the painting of the woman eating salad, I’m looking at the ability of having desires from a female perspective. Like why is this woman eating salad and feeling so sexual about it? She has eroticized salad, because nobody has ever told a woman that salad isn’t good for her. Look at how things are marketed to women. Men are constantly being sold sex. Women have other desires according to marketers, safe things that they can desire without being naughty.
MB: Things are changing - look how many sex toys, body-positive information and female-oriented websites that aren’t porn but are all about pleasure, like OMGYes.com, are being offered to us every day, in a way that actually looks inviting and sexy.
RFW: Yes but what hasn’t changed yet is why are female artists not succeeding as much in the art world? Why are the prices for women artists' works not as high as men? Desire and ambition in women are not received with the same amount of respect than with men. Wanting too much is still not considered attractive on women, at least not professionally.
MB: If we look back at women in general and women artists in particular in the past 50 years, they never thought that they could have it all: like having kids, and/or a husband or partner (of any gender) and a career. But now artists and every other woman are doing it because women believe that they can have it all.
RFW: It is coming but it is very slow.
MB: About 65% of what I’m excited to look at right now are from women artists. All of us women should always fight for equality and help each other succeed. And whatever isn’t exactly equal, in my opinion, is that side that is feminine and maternal, nurturing, softer and vulnerable. That is a side that should also be respected, because that is what makes us who we are as a gender and as, I dare to say, spiritual forces that hold the world together. These aren’t handicaps but things that should be celebrated. But I want to know, where does the inspiration for the painting of the black woman comes from?
I looked at ads from the 70s that were composed like old paintings. A lot of figures and filling out this rectangle following the art history of how to put a woman in a rectangle (or a box for that matter). She was a black woman in a cigarette ad dressed a bit like [Vermeer’s] “Girl in the Pearl Earring” and the copy in the ad said, “Your Good Taste is Showing” and that is the title of the painting and the name of my upcoming solo show at PPOW.
MB: I think she looks Gaugin-ish, but from our times, and she is so defying, one cigarette in each hand, as if flipping both fingers to everyone.
RFW: I wanted to take that line of the ad and expand it to include other things. This specific ad was the one I found that covered the aspects I wanted to tackle and explore: class, race, desire and sexuality. I was looking at hundreds of cigarettes ads from the 70s and I couldn’t find any black woman, in fact, in any ad. I really was focused on cigarette ads because they ranged the whole spectrum with all sorts of dynamics with men and women: some were in parties, others were free-spirited; in some, women were behind the men who were smoking. And in my painting, there is some Gaugin but there is a reference to Balthus’s composition, in reverse - the cat in his painting is looking at you, here it's looking at the woman.
MB: What about all these Playgirl magazines that you’ve been researching, were they feminist?
RFW: No! They aren’t even arousing for anybody. They are so awkward. Women could not have possibly been present in those photoshoots or in the creative side of it.
MB: What made you paint that girl in that canvas with the fluorescent vagina? Because that is the focal point of that painting.
RFW: I was thinking about Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” but I was also thinking about Andrea Mantegna's painting "The Lamentation of Christ" which was finished around 1501 and one of the things that the viewer sees first is the feet of Jesus on the cross. The woman I painted was having a nice time, sunbathing and minding her own business, and someone is looking at her from that angle, so she just tilted the head as if saying “don’t bother me!” but she’s just always confronted by this ever-present male gaze. Like life is.