“Sun Hat Sunset” (2012), a painting by Robin F. Williams currently on view at PPOW Gallery, shows a stubble-chinned man casually smoking a cigarette and wearing a floppy, oversized hat — the whimsical kind usually seen on women at the beach. The portrait elicits a startling contrast between the man’s masculine features, the virile way in which his lips loosely grasp his cigarette, and his seemingly feminine choice of headgear. The man looks slightly upwards, his gaze out of our line of vision. A vivid sunset fills the background of this tondo (circular) canvas, its powerful greens, reds, and yellows just bordering on the fluorescent.
Williams’s new show, Sons of the Pioneers, is comprised of 11 large portraits of men. All blur traditional gender portrayals. The press release describes the work as “replacing the idyllic female, or odalisque, with romanticized scenes of men,” but the paintings go beyond a simple upset of the conventions of portraiture, each one delving more deeply into the identity and emotional life of its subject.
Sons of the Pioneers is not a show to browse casually. Williams’s portraits demand sustained attention, due to their size (the smallest work is 30 x 44 in, the largest 102 x 79), their shape (many are tondos, a form that originated in Greek antiquity), their use of bold color, and the ambiguous, often slightly sad, expressions of their subjects. “Gold Panner” (2012), the largest work in the first room of the show, is a tondo portrait of a nude man who sits in an idyllic natural landscape, feet submerged in a small waterfall. In his hand is a copper-toned pan; the painting’s title suggests that he’s using it to sift gold from rock, although the pan is shown empty. The colors of the work — light pinks, greens, and yellows, all a soft, fluorescent hue — contrast with the masculine mythology evoked by the title.
Both the colors and the way in which the pan modestly covers the man’s genitals allude to a history of feminine portraiture, but his expression complicates a reading of the work as a simple breakdown of gender depiction. He gazes down at the pan, his hand gently resting on its surface, as if contemplating its texture. It seems that we’ve happened upon him in a quiet moment of thought. Yet, there’s also a sense of displacement in his body language — the scene located somewhere between the feminine and the masculine, and, far from eliciting a drag-like humor, containing pathos.
The portraits in Sons of the Pioneers exhibit a masterful use of color and oil paint. Williams explores the three-dimensionality of oil paint in all but one of the works, giving each canvas a highly texturized surface; often the subjects’ accessories seem to protrude slightly from the background, making them appear lifelike and strengthening the connection with the viewer. The moods of the works change with the colors used: the contemplative pinks and yellows of “Gold Panner” gives way to the eerie oranges, pinks, and browns of “Cave Painting” (2013), which shows a nude man in a wide-brimmed farmer’s hat posed at the entrance to a cave; other men look on from behind, upending the notion of the male gaze as solely directed towards the female nude.
In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Williams explained some of the inspiration for her varied color palette:
This body of work in particular made me think about Lisa Frank. There were posters, stickers, notebooks, and they were all neon-colored psychedelic utopias … It was an unadulterated, blissed-out, high-intensity girl paradise. The brand, although marketed to girls, was one of the few that wasn’t dominated by pink. She used every color of the rainbow, aggressively.
As with the Lisa Frank brand, Williams deploys color forcefully: it demands that its subjects be noticed. It also lends the works an otherworldly, surreal element: are we looking at representational portraits or the representations of these men’s interior dreamscapes? “The Gardeners” (2013), for example, portrays a man and a companion of ambiguous gender in a landscape of cactus and red cactus-flower. But the ocean blue-green palette suggests that the scene may be underwater, located in the fantasy life of its merman-like gardener.
Williams’s previous portraits of children upended idealized notions of the psychological landscape of adolescence. Her work in Sons of the Pioneers demonstrates a similar sensitivity to the interior life of contemporary adult men. The paintings do question the gaze in portraiture and its usual direction towards the female subject; however, the use of feminine accessories and the nudity of many of the subjects also present an unmasked view of a vulnerable state — a stripping away of the hyper-masculinity one tends to associate with the original pioneers.
Robin F. Williams: Sons of the Pioneers continues at PPOW Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, third floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 15.