GOT A LIGHT: As far as industries go, fashion would appear to be more tolerant of smoking than most.
From models stealing puffs backstage or Instagrammers posting with cigarettes in hand, the habit is all in a day’s work for some. Then there are the more engrained incarnations like cigarette pants, “Le Smoking” and Alessandro Michele’s Marlboro-inspired looks for Gucci. But Rhode Island School of Design alum Robin F. Williams had other things in mind when she created the acrylic and oil painting titled “It Is Not a Pipe.”
Her art — a woman holding a burning cigarette — is the cover image of the winter edition of RISD XYZ. The smoker is unidentifiable with a curtain of hair covering her face and two mirrored orbs placed strategically where eyes would be. The Greenpoint-based artist said she borrowed from a Seventies print ad for Salem cigarettes. The piece is a winking reference to the René Magritte painting “The Treachery of Images.” Williams said of the Belgian Surrealist artist, “He paints a pipe and scrolls below it in French ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ which means, ‘This is not a pipe.’ I hoped the play on words would speak to the ways we often confuse women with images of women or the products they sell.”
About 15 of every 100 U.S. adults aged 18 years or older smoked cigarettes in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Williams wasn’t concerned that her work would be taken at face value. “I’m not worried about paintings making people want to smoke. I hope that when people view a painting like mine they don’t see it as a fundamentalist statement. Just because I paint a woman smoking doesn’t mean I want women to smoke,” Williams said. “Cigarettes have an incredible psychological weight and symbolic power. That’s another reason they are so addictive. I’m painting about psychological weight and symbolic power more than I’m painting about smoking.”
She continued, “Cigarettes have served as a stand-in for sex, desire, femininity, masculinity, strength, freedom, fun, youthfulness, wisdom, immortality or death to name just a few. To acknowledge that observation in my work makes cigarettes a stand-in for the fragility of identity (which advertisers would be unlikely to espouse.) It’s not propaganda for the product itself. It’s closer to the opposite.”
And RISD was on board with her outlook, too. The magazine’s editor Liisa Silander selects cover images with an editorial advisory group. Williams’ image was part of her solo show last fall “Your Good Taste Is Showing.” Her image was “chosen to highlight the focus of the issue, which is on the importance of breakthroughs in creative practice,” a RISD spokeswoman said. Eckhaus Latta’s Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta were also featured, as were “Wonderstruck” novelist and screenwriter Brian Selznick and artists Joe Bradley and Julie Mehretu.