Photo: David Plakke
The not-so Divine Comedy
”There is in the human condition a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility” – Albert Camus
“I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.” – Mel Brooks
Who ever said that modern art was not supposed to be funny? Not William Anthony, that is for sure. While humor remains somewhat under recognized in the annals of modern art, Anthony’s oeuvre of more of than 50 years nevertheless proves that it constitutes a distinct artistic intelligence, profound and outrageous at the same time. In his drawings and paintings critical commentary on contemporary culture and subtle reflections on the concept of art blend with perverse, if not downright obscene fantasies in a skewed satire. They pose a witty and pointed comic challenge to our perception of the world as we known it through images, twisting and turning conventions, parodying clichés and subverting preconceptions. Whether they are appropriations of the works of classic and modern masters, covers for gay magazines, posters for Broadway shows, illustrations of the Bible (the only one Warhol could understand according to Warhol himself), W.W. II history and Western mythology, or cartoonish takes on social events or even his private life, Anthony goes to work on the images with his characteristic unorthodox and original pencil. In his eyes and hands no image, type, style or period, is too sacred to be exposed to a process of continuous interpretive mutation. He depicts the familiar in surreal, dumb, childish, grotesque, silly, vulgar, and disturbing ways that make you smile discretely (“Am I really allowed to think that Hitler making an excuse for his wrongdoings is funny and that War is Swell?”) or laugh out loud (I don’t care what other people, especially the feminists think, the story of “Tit Slapper” is hilarious). In either case, you seriously wonder about the sanity of the world and of the artist.
Anthony identifies with a particular form or tradition of images, of image making and function of images, namely that of the icon, which is underlined by his recent paintings on wooden panels. Like the classical religious icons, Anthony’s icons are relatively small in size and their simple motives make references to imagery with a strong presence in the collective imagination of contemporary visual culture. However, their aesthetics and ethics differ quite significantly from these ancient gold-coated objects used as aids in praying. They are ironic icons in the sense that they make fun of the imagery that we “believe in” and “guide” us. Instead of portraying transcendental ideals they present us with the banalities, stupidities and faults of man, down to earth and below the waist. Right in our faces. SMAK! The spiritual and aesthetic authority of the icon is replaced by the irony of the human condition, stripped down to its naked bodily existence and its misguided behavior and self-conceptions.
The irony of Anthony’s icons is not a cool postmodern indifference or nihilism. On the contrary, it is an expression of honesty. From a perspective without illusions they depict man, this stereotypical creature walking the earth with a dumb grin of his face. Up to no good. This is how man really behaves, thinks, and looks behind the ideals of his narcissistic mirror; how he gets in his own way all the time and does not make a whole lot of sense. That is the irony Anthony deals with in his icons. Better believe it.
Don’t try this at home
Anthony’s characteristic style of drawing, which he also practices in his paintings, is not taught in art schools. Actually, it originates from a book he wrote back in the mid 60s entitled A New Approach to Figure Drawing where he – inspired by his student’s mistakes – used exaggerated and disproportioned figures as examples of how not to draw. But what happened was that, “this satirical how-not-to took on an insane life of its own in my work”, as he later put it in an interview. The mistakes liberated Anthony from the restrictions of the classical technique and concept of drawing and allowed him to embrace a new personal style that is way out of line and proud to be so.
As accidentally and inadvertently as this style came into being Anthony has developed and refined it to (im)perfection. Aesthetically, it holds the naiveté and simplicity of childrens’ drawings that play around with image making with an unmistakably touch of an adult’s skilled determination to abandon all rules, except from the rule not to follow rules. It is a stylistic deadpan joke told with such force and conviction that it is impossible to discard it as a matter of bad technique. The idiosyncratic logic of representation cannot be judged according to the classical ideals of depicting the human figure in the art. It is beyond that, mocking the aesthetic of the anatomically correct and soulful as an aesthetic of delusions and boredom. Man is not, or actually never was, an ideal figure, neither physically nor mentally; rather he has always been full of faults, inabilities, and pretty much two-dimensional and Anthony’s style reflects this. It resists absorption by the culture of beautiful and “correct” images, working instead on the far side of this culture, where puerile ideas and deviant desires that would even make Sigmund Freud feel at a loss of words guide the pencil.
Pop Art revisited and twisted
Springing from a pop cultural sensibility akin to that of his near-contemporaries Warhol and Lichtenstein (both big fans of Anthony and two of Anthony’s declared sources of inspiration) Anthony’s art is action-packed with a diversity of references to other images, from movies, photographs, magazines, paintings, and cartoons, you name it. In this sense, Anthony is a thoroughbred pop artist, but his works do not come in fancy and flashy colors. In fact, they could not give a rat’s ass about the shinny side of pop. In the spirit of graffiti culture, they rather thrive in the crude and trashy elements of pop and associate with street kids like Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their disturbed lines are all about getting dirty. Not just for show. Real dirty.
Anthony’s dedication to and involvement with the unpolished is also reflected in his choice of grotesque, dramatic and absurd subjects closely (if not explicitly) related to German Expressionism, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch and well, yes, Robert Crumb. However, when all these prominent references are mentioned, it is essential to note that Anthony does not fit into any unequivocal art historical contextualization. There is a particular indeterminability and timelessness to his art. Like the daily newspapers comics, it continues indefinitely, in its own disharmonic loony tune with the crooked and crazy way of the world (of images) without significant aesthetic changes, yet it still maintains an undeniable innovative freshness and unpredictability. You easily become familiar and fall in love with Anthony’s universe, but at the same time it keeps charmingly surprising and delightfully alienating you by expanding its territory, covering new land that you never imagined existed or dared to imagine existed.
One can say that in a world where God’s authority and promises seem ever more questionable laughing at the ludicrous and inexplicable aspect of human existence is the closest to transcendence man can get. To provoke this laughter seems to be the function of the ironic icons of St. William Anthony. They will not guide you the way to a higher ground, but they will take you on a hilarious detour at eye level – or in most cases, even lower – filled with revelations, unlike anything else in the world of images. Off we go. At full risk.
By Jacob Lillemose
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