back to Reviews & essays

The Moscow Times, 1996

«Trunkful of ‘Obscenity’ Drives Police Hog Wild»

«Europe on the line»

Picture this: A GAI officer makes a routine stop of a trailer truck along the highway from Moscow to St. Petersburg. When he orders the driver to open up the back, he discovers inside a towering sculpture of a blindfolded, bare-bottomed Sumo wrestler, another of what looks like a vivisected angel, and a graphic bronze representation of a tattooed hog receiving a sexual flavor from a brassy, bare-shouldered young woman.

Well, it’s not too difficult to imagine what happens next. The unfortunate driver promptly gets thrown into a dark, dank cell for the night. The truckload of three-dimensional obscenity is immediately impounded. And the Texas artist waiting for his life’s work to arrive at the Russian Museum begins to curse, fume and rant spectacularly.

Frank Williams was only just beginning to cool down when I found him belatedly unloading the truck outside museum. “It was some two-bit town along the way,” he moaned, “Not like the kind of neighborhood where you generally come across stuff like this. There wasn’t even a telephone in the place.” Only after armed guards had been dispatched to gently convince the rural cop of the artistic merits of Williams’ distinctive style could everything get underway.

The exhibition, which kicks off Thursday, will fill seven gigantic rooms. Williams will use the opportunity to give a retrospective of his sculpture, from his early days in Houston up to the last four years, which he has spent in Moscow. As well as the wrestler and the horny hog – a symbol, it turns out, of the New Russian – St. Petersburgers will be treated to Williams’ depiction of a gargantuan minotaur sweating metallic droplets as it heaves a gigantic, rutted cogwheel; a massive bespectacled figure (looking uncannily like Nelson Mandela), which disintegrates and drips into a copper container; and many other nightmarish visions from a gothic, distorted imagination.

How the show will be greeted here is sure to be even more intriguing than the art itself. St. Petersburg is currently in the grip of a contemporary art drive to revive classicism and to promote the radiant beauty of the human form. Disciples of local movements are really going to hate this stuff. Williams is the very embodiment of why Western traditions, it is argue here, are corrupt, bankrupt and irredeemably ugly.

However, having already experienced a surfeit of decadent, neo-classical beauty in these same Russian Museum rooms, I must say that most of the current work produced by St. Petersburg artists – all lounging youths and prancing nymphs – is far more distasteful than Frank Williams’ nightmares. And far more vacuous as well. The corpses, severed heads and rotting limbs will be, if nothing else, a pleasant and refreshing change.

By John O’Mahony