The “zombie figuration” wave never really washed over Mexico City. Even when flirting with the figure, our painters remain for the most part highly Conceptual, and painting that is colorful, figurative, expressive, and done in large format remains a scarce presence in the local landscape. All of this is to say that Robin F. Williams’s first solo show in Mexico City, “Watch Yourself,” was a unique and welcome occasion.
The show comprised seven new paintings, all part of a very tight body of work that managed to build a cohesive new narrative in line with the Brooklyn-based artist’s ongoing preoccupations: They are images of women, culled from B movies of the slasher/horror genre, perfectly and closely framed to evoke ambience, attitude, and emotion. This series is a satisfying meld of her earlier Photorealist style and her more recent use of emoji-ish expressions and streamlined models. The first thing one saw was Prom Night Reckoning (all works 2023), a medium-size canvas full of pinks, blues, and drama, in which a heavily made-up prom queen holds her tiara-wearing head between her hands in a gesture of complete fright, corsage still dangling from her hand. It’s an intricately layered picture, vibrating with the constant tension between hazy gradients and ultrasharp lines, and with the bright color palette and animal print–like finishes one could expect from Lisa Frank stationery.
The indisputable highlight of the show was Tears on Screen, an absolute trip of a mural-size painting. In it, two women’s faces, bathed in blue light, nearly touch each other; one is inside a car, her forlorn face staring ahead, as the other lets herself in, tempting, devilish, with the fringe of her cowgirl shirt swaying forward as she trespasses through the car’s window. From this central narrative, a series of chromatic and technical special effects explode all over the canvas. The image is distorted with a wavy filter similar to the warping that happens when you digitally photograph an analog screen. It is dotted with painstakingly rendered orange tears and colorful streamers, draped over the composition like party decorations. My favorite trick is the eyelid becoming the elbow of a woman’s silhouette—a background/foreground flip that adds dimension to the untold lesbian drama.
The tension between contrasting elements appears as the seed of Williams’s brilliance. Her impeccable technique constantly wrangles with the lowbrow character of her visual references, but also with the crafty dimension of her material experimentation, her use of rollers and sponges and other types of shticky paint application—the kind of hacks one might be more used to seeing from semi-amateur artists on TikTok and YouTube. These lend an accessible, genuinely fun quality to her otherwise rigorously composed images and well-researched subject matter. Tears on Screen is simply hypnotic, magical in the sense of involving implausible optical deception and visual trickery. It almost makes me wish I hadn’t seen the magician’s secrets revealed on her TikTok account. In any case, this unique approach to painting drew an impressive number of visitors to the show, with a healthy turnout of local artists and art students as well.
The regurgitative staples of zombie figuration are products meant to be digested in mere seconds. Williams offers something different. Failing to spend some time inspecting the craft and skill invested in her paintings—their virtuoso if completely wacky construction—would not only be a big miss but would also make you a bit of a snob, and who would want to be one of those?