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S. Clay Wilson

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Steve Clay Wilson (born July 25, 1941), better known as S. Clay Wilson, is an American underground cartoonist and central figure in the underground comix movement. Wilson attracted attention from readers with aggressively violent and sexually explicit panoramas of lowlife denizens, often depicting the wild escapades of pirates and bikers. He was an early contributor to Zap Comix, and Wilson’s artistic audacity has been cited by Robert Crumb as a liberating source of inspiration for Crumb’s own work. Recalling when he first saw Wilson’s work (in about 1968) Robert Crumb said, “The content was something like I’d never seen before, anywhere, the level of mayhem, violence, dismemberment, naked women, loose body parts, huge, obscene sex organs, a nightmare vision of hell-on-earth never so graphically illustrated before in the history of art…. Suddenly my own work seemed insipid…”[1]

A striking feature of Wilson’s work is the contrast between the literate way in which his characters speak and think and the depraved violence in which they engage. As James Danky and Denis Kitchen wrote in their book, Underground Classics, “He astonished and sometimes frightened his fellow cartoonists, though they saw it as pushing if not eviscerating the boundaries of taste. More than anyone, Wilson defined the boundaries of the medium.”[2] The artist and characters sometimes take violence with a playful attitude, for example getting tired of fighting and agreeing to have sex instead of continuing a battle. Wilson’s later work became more ghoulish, featuring zombie pirates and visualizations of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a rotting vampire mother. In many respects, however, his work has remained consistent since his emergence in the 1960s. In contrast to the many countercultural figures who have moderated their more extreme tendencies and successfully assimilated into the mainstream of commercial culture, Wilson’s work has remained troubling to mainstream sensibilities and defiantly ill-mannered.

“He showed us we had been censoring ourselves,” said Zap cohort Victor Moscoso. “He blew the doors off the church. Wilson is one of the major artists of our generation.”[3] Referring to his and the Zap crew’s status in art circles, Wilson himself said, “If you’re not good enough to be a cartoonist, maybe you can be an artist.

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