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An Artist Is Finding Out Who She Is Through Her Art

The painter Robin F. Williams once thought that she would be a children’s book illustrator.

Her career and her personal evolution took her in a very different direction, but she kept some of the stylistic aspects of her first artistic aspiration.

“I think I learned a lot about my identity through making art,” said Williams, 40, who lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. She identifies as queer, bisexual, pansexual and nonbinary, and uses both “she” and “they” pronouns.

Williams has impressed other artists with her slyly funny, graphically sophisticated scenes that often depict female subjects with an eye to upending the traditional “male gaze” power dynamic.

Working in both oil and acrylic, she has experimented with different ways of applying and adjusting paint, sometimes using a silicone dish sponge, other times creatively wielding an airbrush.

“Robin is a savant with materials,” said Jenna Gribbon, her friend and fellow painter. “I don’t often stand in front of a painting and have no idea how the artist constructed the image.”

The artist Brian Donnelly, better known under his nom d’art, KAWS, said, “The humor in her work really gets me, and her execution is flawless.”

Donnelly has lent three works in his personal collection to Williams’s first solo museum show, which opened this month in her hometown, Columbus, Ohio, at the Columbus Museum of Art. “Robin F. Williams: We’ve Been Expecting You” runs through Aug. 18.

One of the pictures in the show, “Siri Defends Her Honor” (2019), imagines a life for Apple’s digital assistant. “She’s a woman without a body, trapped in our phone and destined to do our bidding,” Williams said.

Williams talked about her approach to art in her Brooklyn studio. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

How old were you when art came into your life?

My grandmother got me involved in art lessons when I was about 5. They were in the basement of a gift shop, on Wednesday nights.

Now you have a show at your hometown museum.

I lived in Columbus for 18 years, and I’ve lived in New York for 18 years. So it feels like a nice homecoming in a way.

Did you go there as a kid?

My dad did take me to the Columbus Museum a handful of times, but I didn’t have much context for painting at that time. But when I was 8, he bought me a little book of postcards out of the gift shop, of American paintings. I remember loving that. As a kid, I needed art at book scale. I carried that around with me.

Any memorable images?

There was a George Tooker painting, “The Subway” (1950). He was a very early influence of mine. He was very good at creating queer subtext in painting.

Your paintings have a lot of humor. Was that there in your work from the beginning?

There’s a core memory from art school at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. I was presenting a painting I’d worked really hard on, and it was a woman. She was sort of a Victoria’s Secret model. But she was positioned like a tiger protecting a birthday cake. It was an absurd painting. I’m embarrassed to admit that, at the time, I did not think it was funny. I thought it was cutting social commentary.

As a Midwesterner at a prestigious East Coast art school, I was very concerned with being taken seriously. And someone gave me a compliment: “This is really funny, in a good way.” So I pretended like I meant it to be that way.

Did that hurt your feelings?

Actually, it gave me so much permission. I was like, “Oh, well I am funny.” But it took me a while to circle back to humor in my work.

Your subjects are mostly female now. How did that evolve?

I painted children and then I started painting men. Around the time that I gave myself permission to paint women, I also gave myself permission to let the humor into the work and I think it just got a lot stronger.

They are women but they’re also somewhat cartoonish, on purpose, right?

I paint figures who are clockable as women. But I also enjoy the conversation around gender being a construct. These are paintings: Do paintings have a gender? They are a collection of signs and signals that we have collectively decided add up to a woman. But I like to leave some ambiguity there. For nonbinary folks, there’s never going to be a perfectly designed way of presenting their internal experience.

How does that relate to your own history?

My identities don’t fall into a clean category. So I’m thinking about the pressure to be legible. Whether that’s as a woman, or as a nonbinary person, or a queer person — to be legible, to be understood, is such a real desire. I definitely want to speak to other queer people, but I really want to speak to anybody that’s ever felt the oppressiveness of playing a role or needing to monitor how you are perceived. I think that’s a sensation that most of us have experienced at one time or another.

There’s something self-possessed about these figures, too.

I think it all stems from a broader idea of the figures’ having a very rich inner life — it’s an implication of their own consciousness. It’s like these are paintings that know they’re paintings.

But they also have a life when they are not being seen, which is frustrating for a person who was socialized as a woman. You’re regarded all the time, as if you’re something that gets kept on a shelf, and animates to life when you’re being perceived.

What other artists have influenced you besides Tooker?

Manet. He’s my guy. I always feel so bashful because he’s an obvious choice. I like his way of flattening things, and the way that he positions the viewer implicates the viewer — the way that it’s flattened, it almost implies that the light source is the viewer.

Is there a specific Manet that moves you?

“Olympia” forever! I’ve only seen that painting in person twice. [Manet’s famous 1863 scene depicts a nude prostitute, attended by a Black maid.] And I wept both times. Manet had a commitment to dismantle open secrets and hierarchies, to lay them bare and say, “Let’s just look at this for what it is.” Oh, my God, if I could do that for the rest of my life.

It feels like it relates to your idea of these figures having a consciousness.

She’s a sex worker who never gets a day off. She travels across the world, she visits different museums [if the painting is lent]. That made me want to be an artist. A painter, specifically. I owe her a lot. And it feels like I owe her a lot. I don’t want to throw Manet under the bus, but Manet is not alive. My relationship is to her now.

Any other artists?

George de La Tour [1593-1692] is a huge influence on me. The drama! His sculpting with light interests me. For the last couple of years, I’ve been looking a lot at horror movies. And that genre is just bursting with chiaroscuro, figures emerging from the dark. A de La Tour painting and the slasher film are getting at a similar thing: We’re watching women emote in a very powerful way, about something unspeakable.

That connects directly with a work in the show, “Final Girl Exodus” (2021), referring to the last woman standing in slasher movies.

I wanted to imagine a future for them, where they got out of the loop of the sequel. They’re going into paradise with each other.

One of them is looking over her shoulder, acknowledging the viewer saying: “We know we’re being viewed. But this is a new option, this is a way to view us, too.”