Robert Williams sees the world in a different way, so different he's had to carve his own path through the art world.
No, more than a path — he dug a canyon.
Williams is known as the godfather of the lowbrow and pop surrealist art movements, which are rooted in rawness and rebellion.
Once scoffed at by art teachers, his work is now used in classrooms.
The LSU Museum of Art is showcasing 30 of the 75-year-old artist's works in its exhibit, "Robert Williams: Slang Aesthetics," which runs through June 17.
The oil paintings and some drawings are granular in their detail, almost psychedelic; some might say a little disturbing. They are packed with humor and sarcasm. They have life and energy.
"They're tamer than what I used to do," Williams says. "I don't think they'd stand up in your house if the pastor came over. They're a story — a narrative. What you see is what you get. It's like you're standing in the middle of a comic book."
When Williams began producing such work in the 1960s, it wasn't considered serious art.
"As a young fellow, I was very, very inspired by what's become known as lowbrow culture," Williams says. "I liked comic books. I liked hot rod magazines. I liked girlie magazines. I liked references to surfing, outlaw bikers, tattoos, B-movie posters — all the very rich things that made life wonderful and enjoyable," Williams says. "But these are all the things that don't quite make the cut in fine art school."
Yet Williams' work would become iconic in pop culture when his 1979 painting, "Appetite for Destruction," provided both the title and cover art for the debut album of the hard rock band Guns N’ Roses.
But that was later, long after Williams tried to become a serious member of the academic art world.
He grew up, and still lives, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There he fell in love with hot rods and immersed himself in that culture.
But the art world was calling, and Williams enrolled in Los Angeles City College in 1963.
At that time, however, the abstract expressionism art movement was in full swing, and Williams' preference for form and draughtsmanship wasn't in vogue.
"They really considered these things sort of a form of carnival trick," he says. "And abstract expressionism believed that art should be an action and from the heart. But I liked to draw, and I liked images that were tight, and I liked the human form, and I liked comic books, and, in no time, I was referred to as an illustrator."
The label was derogatory, critics making it clear that realistic artwork, as Williams puts it, "was the artwork of the mentally regressed."
Williams left art school and pursued work as a professional artist, landing a job at Black Belt magazine, then designing containers for the Weyerhaeuser Corp. before finding his dream job in 1965 as studio art director for custom car builder Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, a key figure in southern California's Kustom Kulture movement of the 1950s and '60s.
When Roth's studio closed, Williams joined the Zap Comix collective of artists, his work skyrocketing in the nonconformist, anti-establishment art movement alongside fellow artists R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso.
That's when Williams coined the term "lowbrow" as a way to describe his work as opposed to the "high" art world from which he was excluded.
"I did a series of oil paintings — no gallery would show them, no books would publish them, no magazines would write about them," Williams says. "But I was fortunate enough to sell a slew of paintings to a couple of millionaires. So I sustained myself on oil paintings still while working for Zap Comix."
Williams found an equally nonconformist audience in the punk rock movement of the 1980s, selling his work in their after-hours clubs. The subjects were lurid and wild, and sold almost as fast as Williams could hang them.
"All of a sudden, I have a peer group in punk rockers, and I've made a name for myself and record companies are asking to use this stuff," Williams says. "And I thought success was coming my way. But the art world would have nothing to do with it."
So he founded a magazine that would — Juxtapoz. The year was 1994, and the first issue sold 23,000 copies. The magazine began publishing quarterly, then monthly.
"Within a couple of years, it outsold Art Forum," Williams says. "A couple of years go by, and it outsells Art in America. A few years go by, and it outsells the big one, Art News. Originally, teachers wouldn't let Juxtapoz in the classroom. Now it's very hard to find an art class without Juxtapoz in the classroom. It was an enormous success story, and it's completely changed art."
He pauses, smiles, then gestures to the gallery walls.
"And it all started with this crap on the wall."
Robert Williams: Slang Aesthetics
An exhibition of artist Robert Williams' work
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (open until 8 p.m. Thursdays); 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; through June 17
WHERE: LSU Museum of Art in the Shaw Center for the Arts, 100 Lafayette St.
ADMISSION: $5 age 13 and older. Free for ages 12 and younger, university students with ID and museum members. Free admission for all on the first Sunday of every month.
INFORMATION: (225) 389-7200 or lsumoa.org