Robin F. Williams is Reimagining the Female Nude

Robin F. Williams has been painting nudes since high school. “My art teacher showed me Manet’s Olympia and explained how controversial it had been when it was first shown,” she says. Williams quickly painted her own, which landed her both a scholarship and the threat of removal from the school’s art show—the vice-principal feared scandal. “He eventually agreed to let me put the piece in the show if I wrote a paragraph explaining why it wasn’t porn,” she says. “That may have been my first artist statement.”

Now 35, Williams paints women (and occasionally men) wearing vivid facial expressions that suggest pleasure, provocation, and everything in between—and not much else. “They are usually showing off or pursuing the viewer,” she says. Her work is largely inspired by her love–hate relationship with 1970s magazine advertising, the work of old masters like Manet and Balthus, and the inevitability of the male gaze. “When paintings I love make me uncomfortable or angry, they are especially important as source material,” she says. She cites a ’70s-era Kent cigarette ad featuring an African–American woman styled to look like a Vermeer painting that was captioned “Your good taste is showing” as one such catalyst; it eventually also became the name of her recent New York exhibition. “The ad promised power to women of colour on the condition that they aspired toward whiteness, and also presented themselves as sexually available,” she says. “The ad was about sub-mission disguised as agency, and it was gross.”

Williams studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, which she thought would lead her to a career in editorial illustration. “Initially I was shy about my illustration background, but now I see how it’s been helpful,” she says. “It’s where I learned to create relationships between the paintings and the viewer.” Those relationships, which could also be categorized as power dynamics, are central to Williams’s work. “I paint what I am interested to see in the world, or what I’m interested to see exist as a painting,” she says. “The female nudes I’ve decided to paint fall into that category for me—I’d never seen a 10-foot-tall woman masturbating into a bowl of salad, so I painted her, because I wanted to see how it felt to stand in front of that painting. You could call that a feminist impulse. You could also call that curiosity.” There’s no doubt that feminism is a big current that runs through her work, but Williams feels that the label can often be limiting. “I’m an artist who happens to be a woman and also a feminist,” she says. “More often than not, I’m curated into all-female shows lacking dialogue with a broader context. There still seems to be a fear of letting feminist art sit on a wall next to ‘art’ art.” This fall, Williams will mount her next show with Various Small Fires Gallery in Los Angeles, which is sure to bring more of her arresting nudes. “The secret is, women aren’t a fad.”