Studio Visit: Painter Robin F. Williams on Her Newfound Fascination With TikTok and How She Sustains a Sense of Wonder at Work
The Brooklyn-based painter gives us a peek inside her studio and into her creative process.
In “Studio Visit,” artists invite us to peek inside their workspaces to offer insight into their process, inspirations, and obsessions.
Throughout the lockdown, artists have continued toiling through the tumult, helping the rest of us to make some kind of sense of what’s happening around us, and within ourselves.
Brooklyn-based painter Robin F. Williams has discovered some unlikely sources of inspiration online throughout this time and has been bringing them into her work, which often includes a mashup of pop-culture references and art history—all of which come together in the hulking, yet graceful female characters who populate her works.
With solo and group exhibitions at PPOW in New York and Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, Williams has attracted attention across the country. We spoke with the artist about her favorite tools, the importance of a good book club, and the difference between “producing” and “creating.”
What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?
I have a plastic “paintbrush” that is made specifically for creating splatter. I also have a house-painting roller with a big fluffy woolen nap. This is used for applying rough textures that mimic stucco or popcorn ceilings. I have a collection of foam that I use as flexible stencils while I’m airbrushing. It’s hard to say what’s most indispensable, I need everything in my studio.
What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?
I’m preparing to stain raw canvas on a portion of a new painting. It’ll be the first step in depicting deep space inside the silhouette of a figure. This process happens on the floor, and there are a lot of opportunities for the paint to bleed and travel in organic ways. It should be fun.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence?
I rotate between podcasts, audio books, and music. Sometimes I listen to standup comedy. Silence in the studio makes me lose focus very quickly. I like to engage and distract the language part of my brain so that I don’t judge or intellectualize what I’m doing visually. Audio also helps me stay on task when I’m doing something mundane like masking or stretching a canvas.
What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?
There’s very little art that I wholly despise, but when it happens, I’m generally responding to things about the world that make me angry. The art is just the messenger. Totality, purity, and monolithic or overly individualistic gestures turn me off. I admire work that’s relational, emotional, assertive, but inclusive. I like feeling small but connected when I look at art, and I like to feel the artist’s connection to their own practice.
What snack food could your studio not function without?
I will always choose snacking over working, which means I can never keep snacks in the studio.
Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
Early in the quarantine I found TikTok, which has been an unexpected source of inspiration. Like every social media platform, its algorithm privileges certain problematic content, but there are also pretty radical spaces for queers, BIPOC, witches (WitchTok), and neurodivergent folks.
I’ve also picked up a few “open source” painting techniques that feel like contemporary folk art practices. Pour painting, tie dying, and cookie decorating have all given me ideas for paintings. These videos are similar to YouTube in that teaching a technique is often the impetus for making the work. Nothing is proprietary. The idea is to share.
When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?
I tend to get stuck when I’m bored with what I’m doing. Boredom means I need to create more space for play or exploration. It helps that I have a fluid method of working between painting, drawing, and printmaking. Within the paintings alone, I use many different mediums and applications. Moving between disciplines or techniques gives me novel ideas. If I’m curious, then I’m naturally motivated. I try not to enter into a final work unless an element of questioning or experimentation already exists. How will it feel to make this work? How will it feel to stand in front of this work and experience it in the world? If I make something without centering these questions, then I’ve fallen into the trap of producing rather than creating. A lot of my practice involves weeding out the impulse to produce so that I can be present for the experience of making.
It also helps to get out of the studio. I have an incredible feminist crit group that doubles as a book club. We meet every month or two to discuss a book or visit someone’s studio. We’ve been doing virtual visits during the pandemic. I’m always inspired and motivated after these meetings.
Taking care of myself is a good way to get unstuck. I’ll pick up an instrument and sing in the mornings if I’m feeling anxious. I’ll meditate, exercise, or cook myself a good meal. I find it helps to have active hobbies and interests outside the studio, so that I don’t put too much pressure on my work to meet my needs for wonder. This paradoxically makes more room for wonder in the studio.
What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?
I was lucky enough to be in a very special show in Provincetown this summer curated by Joe Sheftel called “Intimate Companions.” The work was hung at the former home of Mary Heaton Vorse, a novelist, labor activist, suffragette, and peace advocate. Every piece felt like it belonged in her home, like a well-loved collection of contemporary and historic art. Domestic spaces have become so central during the pandemic, which made the location and installation that much more poignant. There were mostly queer artists exhibited, and much of the work was erotic but also quite tender. The whole show was cozy, subversive, and sensual at the same time.
If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?
Zoe Leonard’s I Want a President, Kathe Kollwitz’s etching Uprising (aka Outbreak), Elizabeth Catlett’s lithograph Mother and Child, Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20, George Tooker’s An Embrace of Peace (1986), an image of the Redwoods burning, a face mask, a postage stamp.
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