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Radical departure

Underground comic artist brings the counterculture to Eyedrum

Fate seemed to have a plan for underground cartoonist Skip Williamson before he was even in long pants. At a tender, still toddling age, Williamson's Virginia grandmother noticed his resemblance to '30s cartoonist Percy Crosby's comic strip hero "Skippy" and christened the young lad "Skip," thereby predisposing his life's work in the pen-and-ink trade.
And while his young intellect was absorbing his grandmother's fancy for the funny pages, even his molecular fiber seemed primed for the streak of surly wisdom that would later characterize Williamson's fight-the-power comix art. The 56-year-old artist admits that a biological cocktail of his mother's Hispanic/Native-American heritage and some "Virginia redneck" on his father's side seemed to ensure a cantankerous recognition of the economic and social troubles of the land of his birth.
Such seminal influences and accidents of birth served Williamson well in his longtime career as a countercultural cartoonist, who, even during his grade-school social conditioning, was chastised for drawing Mickey Mouse in class. In his teen years, spent in the land-locked middling America of Missouri, Williamson was one of a cadre of alienated teen fanzine cartoonists, including Robert Crumb, his brother Charles and Maus creator Art Spiegelman, who traded their comic digests from far corners of the United States.
Again, testifying to an ingrown taste for the comic arts, Williamson counted among his cartoon influences "Dick Tracy" artist Chester Gould and "Little Orphan Annie" creator Harold Gray, strange fruit for an underground cartoonist, though Williamson says, "whether they were to the left or the right on the political spectrum, they produced great work."
In 1967 Williamson moved to Chicago, at the time a hotbed of comix activity, and in 1968 founded along with R. Crumb and Jay Lynch the influential underground comix journal "Bijou Funnies," soon notorious for its rabid mix of violence, drug use and carnal-excretory mayhem. Over a longtime countercultural stint producing strips for The Chicago Seed and Conspiracy Capers, (done to raise money for the Chicago Seven), Williamson became a fixture on the '60s scene, knee deep in the era's radical politics, though he tended to enjoy the rioting and chaos more than the Lefty quibbling over whether Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin made a better poster child for the revolution. During his 30 years in the Windy City, Williamson counted Crumb, Chicago artist Roger Brown, Shel Silverstein, Abbie Hoffman (whose Steal This Book Williamson illustrated) among his friends and colleagues, and once worked an unbearable week as art director at Hustler until, he says, Larry Flynt drove him crazy. He also spent a decade as art director for Playboy magazine.
Fed up with the gentrification of Chicago, Williamson finally decided six years ago to move to Atlanta and return to the South of his boyhood. He says that Atlanta is right for him at this particular moment, much as Chicago seemed an appropriately repressive place 36 years ago for a countercultural cartoonist who needs the "muse" of oppression to create.
"The level of citywide corruption is very similar to Chicago when we first moved there. Atlanta is a pretty lawless city too." Williamson smiles with a subversive grin. "That's one of the reasons I like Atlanta."
Local audiences will have a chance to gander at some of Williamson's visual vitriol on Oct. 28 when the comic artist's large-scale canvases will be featured at the alternative art space Eyedrum, along with a retrospective of his comic career in the gallery's basement. Working in a frantic acrylic rainbow, Williamson's paintings share a social commentary and battery acid irreverence with his comix. "The Last Supper" is a Terry Gilliamesque banquet of corruption where a snooty French waiter serves up a blue head on a platter and other waiters wield repasts of brain and guts, while a Nixon-in-Hell piece, "Tapeworms," features Richard Nixon growing worm-like goblins from his various orifices.
In the confidence game of politics, power tends to corrupt all takers, Williamson says. "The only nice guy we had was Jimmy Carter, and they chewed him up and spit him out."
Williamson says he's never had a political allegiance of any kind even in the hotbed of '60s radicalism. "I never thought about changing anything," he says, preferring instead, "standing on a soap box and ranting." As part of that unofficial mission, over the years Williamson has lampooned both right and left, including the L.A. "culture" of rampant consumerism and nose candy; Marietta's censorious public watchdogs; amphetamine-juiced liberal revolutionaries; Newt Gingrich; and Ronald Reagan, who Williamson tends to depict as a shriveled head with giant lacquered pompadour.
In Williamson's paintings, the rage flies just as fast and furious, though the artist says, "what's interesting to me now is working with textures and weight and scale." Typical work is "Last Call" of a barfly Jesus nursing his eighth Rolling Rock, and a bloated, corpulent late-Elvis hanging from a cross and painted on blue suede called "King of the Blues."
"I think it's a departure both for me and for Eyedrum" says the artist. "And that's good for both of us I think. It expands their base a little bit and gives me a chance to speak to a younger generation."
Williamson's Eyedrum show may turn out to be Atlanta's own answer to Chris Olifi's Sensation hullabaloo, but it continues a long Williamson tradition of throwing darts at any convenient cultural target. In the '60s, Williamson produced a flier for the Yippies depicting Spiro Agnew as a molester of Boy Scouts and soon learned, "you could get killed doing this stuff."
Holding court in his Marietta studio, this gray-bearded cultural seer says, "I'm pretty unrepentant in my attitudes. It feels normal. I've always had kind of an anarchist streak and it's still there. It hasn't changed much."
A not too surprising stance from a man who says of the '60s: "The only thing I miss was the rioting."
Skip Williamson @ Eyedrum opens Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at Eyedrum, 253 Trinity Ave. 404-522-0655. The show runs through Nov. 25.



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