Robert Williams: Bitchin’ Art Crusader?

Robert Williams: Bitchin’ Art Crusader?

As artist Robert Williams grew up in his often dysfunctional, divorced home in the 1940s and 1950s, his mother wished he’d become a cowboy. After seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 film The Crusades (rereleased in 1948), however, young Bob decided on a career as a crusader instead. With a lion’s heart, fiercely wide-ranging intellect, and outsider’s eye, Robert Williams dreamed of a holy land where his unique brand of art would one day gain acceptance. Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’, now available on DVD and digital platforms, tells the story in Williams’ own words and pictures of that long, often lonely crusade to make art true to his experience that defied the mores of society at large and the art world in particular. Entertaining and enlightening, Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ offers the rare chance to see the real-life good guy win in the end.

For an artist with so many accomplishments (and possibly the leader of a “movement” or “school,” although he’s leaving that up to posterity), Williams strikes you with an astounding lack of pretension combined with a profane disregard for the rules. During Mr. Bitchin’, Williams rides a bicycle and a unicycle and manages to fall off both. Watching him ride with the joy of a young boy, I couldn’t help but think of that great picture of Albert Einstein on his bicycle. I’m not calling Williams an Einstein, but I do think that there’s a connection between playfulness and genius that can’t be denied. Neither took himself too seriously, which freed them up to fail enough times to succeed in the end.

Williams’ irreverent lifestyle and art come straight out of the Southern California environment he’s steeped in since moving there in 1963.  He credits the hot rods, outlaw bikers, psychedelic posters, underground comics, porn industry, and tattoo culture as all having an influence on him. “The West Coast was holding all the cards,” Williams says in the film, while the Midwest and East Coast held onto the “constipated” 1950s mindset. After art school, Williams resisted the limiting branding of “illustrator” and continued to follow his own path, stumbling eventually onto his “dream job” of working for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth studio and producing images for the SoCal hot rod crowd. Continually at his side was his wife, Suzanne Chorna Williams, also a working artist and hot rod enthusiast, but more importantly a kindred spirit with wide-ranging interests and ideas to help feed Bob’s visual landscape.

Throughout Mr. Bitchin’, you always feel a kind of challenge in Williams’ voice—are you capable of keeping up with him? Standing before one of his many “Super Cartoons”—meticulously painted works that portray an entire story in one panel—Williams is at one moment making you think about the Piltdown Man hoax and the general nature of deception, then the forgotten world of board track racing and the death of three racers at the Beverly Hills Speedway in 1920 and the nature of mortality and fame, and then King Farouk of Egypt as an  embodiment of self-delusion. A great deal of thought goes into each of these works and, as several scenes show, a great deal of craftsmanship. For someone with little regard for rules, Williams respects the craft of painting deeply, stretching his canvas and sneering at those who use staples instead of tacks and reminiscing when “being a technical craftsman used to be part of being an artist.” The results can be mesmerizing, as in 1968’s In the Land of Retinal Delights (detail shown above), which smacks of Salvador Dali, but never surrenders, as Dali sometimes did, the idea of communicating an idea, however difficult or however obscure.

Williams finally found a larger audience when he joined ZAP Comix, an underground comic born in the anti-establishment age of anti-Vietnam War protests and the youth movement. Along with artists such as R. Crumb and Victor Moscoso, Williams’ comics became the gateway drug for many to come to accept his paintings as “real” art. “When I came into art,” Williams explains in the film, “cartoons were not considered art. But the cartoon is really the point where you can do the most exaggeration and really test and strain your imagination.” For Williams, the art found in E.C. Comics and pulp magazines contained an “energy that’s been lost in abstract art.” The stifling conformity of canonical art short-circuited art itself for Williams. “There’s a thing about ugly and distastefulness that’s really an aesthetic in itself,” Williams believes and then proves in the calculated ugliness and distastefulness of his work.

That ugly aesthetic brought Williams his biggest fame and infamy when Guns N’ Roses placed his painting Appetite for Destruction inside their album of the same name. Amid cries that the painting “glorified rape,” Williams responded that he was simply portraying the desires of actual life. Williams, who elsewhere painted a series of sexually potent women posed atop food items, recognizes human hungers of all kinds and puts them in his pictures, which can be read as exploitive, but which he (and his supporters) see as powerfully human.

By the end of Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’, you’ll be cheering for the artist, who not only never compromised on his ideas, but also gave back to like-minded artists by founding Juxtapoz Magazine, which publicizes “low brow” art in opposition to the more mainstream art magazines. Thanks to Juxtapoz, today’s generation of “outsider” artists can exhibit in galleries and survive without feeling the loneliness Williams’ did during his earlier career. When Juxtapoz co-founder Greg Escalante tearfully compares the impact of Robert Williams on modern art with that of the Beatles on modern music—and how both are unfairly discounted by history—you feel some of the tragedy of Williams’ struggles, but when you hear Williams say now in all honesty that he’s happy, you’ll feel better about life and art and believe again that the good guys, the true crusaders, sometimes do win.

[Image: Robert Williams. In the Land of Retinal Delights, 1968 (detail).]

[Many thanks to Cinema Libre Studio for providing me with a review copy of Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’, available on DVD and digital platforms starting July 30, 2013.]

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
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The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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