[First published as "Prairie Hedonism" in Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine, issue 75, 2000, 88-89.]
I admit to a prurient, adolescent male fascination with Richard Williams' latest work. These drawings make exhibitionism, public ejaculation, girl-on-girl cunnilingus, teenage fellatio, intergenerational touching and plain old vaginal intercourse seem like such fun!
In the exhibition itself, wall texts tethered (by threads as thin as a lover's drool) Williams' drawings to newspaper reports and editorial page letters about public nudity. Also included were fanciful stories written by the artist himself. Williams means, among other things, to celebrate Canadian court rulings that have recently made female public toplessness legal. These plausible beginnings lead to implausible ends. (As a friend of mine is fond of saying: "good taste goes out the door and bad taste comes innuendo.") The artist wants to show it all, or almost all in classic male heterosexual wet dreams - loads of man/woman activity, some lesbianism, plenty of young , hot stuff, but no portrayals of male homosexual sex. In fact, Williams comes closer to bestiality than any guy-on-guy scenario.
Group and intergenerational sex are not in and of themselves all that fantastical, rather it's the carefree, sunny disposition of Williams' figures that gives them away as fantasy figures - their cheerfulness is most strange. The drawings read as if Norman Rockwell's Grandma has just shoved the turkey aside so that guests can get down and dirty on the thanksgiving table. Unforgettable scenes abound. Williams' depiction of a girl child handing a condom to a teenage couple is especially touching; a young man being fellated next to a tree is charmingly erotic; a boy being mildly tortured by his sister is especially moving; and I find the swinging orgasm scene a la Fragonard to be especially uplifting.
I object to his depictions of young people smoking cigarettes.
Williams' eroticism used to be given biblical settings. Like Renaissance and academic painters, Williams attached feathers to naked figures to give the religious message an erotic charge or, conversely, to sublimate the eroticism. I like the new work a lot more because of its frankness and sexual blasphemy.
Williams' setting is contemporary prairie suburbia - not the suburbs of a David Lynch film or a Beaver Cleaver television episode, but something closer to a mid-life bohemian enclave like Winnipeg's Wolseley, where, as Winnipeggers know, a cigar or a hot dog is never just a cigar, and Block Parties are just a pretext for public sex. (Given the fun, Winnipeg's property values hardly deserve to be amongst the lowest in North America.)
If only we could live this way. If only we could have sex constantly, and with as many people as we liked, and with the silly abandon of Williams' hedonists.
Williams wants a laugh. He gently satirizes security guards and Winnipeg's ex-mayor Shirley Thompson, who opens a "Nude Block Party" in one drawing, as if to promote a "free sex" municipal government. In a couple of drawings, however, Williams mistakenly implies that feminists are prudes, and in one particularly baffling caricature a business woman's inhibitions invite a sexual attack.These references to feminists (and also the one in Arthur Adamson's exhibition essay) miss the mark. Contemporary feminists are not anti-sexual or anti-nudity. Feminism simply encourages honesty and communication on the basis of a presupposition (if not the reality) of sexual equality. Perhaps a man of Williams' generation (he served in World War II in the American Army Air Force) finds it hard to imagine humour and sexuality without some representation of prudery as a foil, or perhaps he feels a deep menace toward feminists.
Drawing can realize detailed visions without the need for actual people, camera equipment, studio personnel or even models - most of the figures in Williams latest works, for example, are simply made up. These skills take time to nurture: very few actual adolescents can make their fantasies as convincing as a Williams' drawing. It is as if Williams were just realizing rather late the adolescent phase of his work - or perhaps he has just now, in his twilight years, decided make the core of his art -the sexual depiction of flesh - explicit rather than implicit.