“Wanting to be Art”: Buy, Sell and Desire in the Paintings of Walter Robinson
Walter Robinson: Paintings and Other Indulgences at Moore College of Art
Curated by Barry Blinderman
January 23 to March 12, 2016
1916 Race Street (at N 20th Street)
Philadelphia, 215 965 4000
These are images that we have seen before: paintings of desire, fear, and pain, or even dreams. A perfectly presented entree, concocted in a corporate culinary laboratory, packed and frozen, to offer quantified flavor with glossy convenience. Or, perhaps, a fastidiously folded flannel shirt, with one sleeve arranged to emphasize the pattern. These are images that, in one way or another, sell: beauty, leisure, vitality, and freedom, all available at cost. Walter Robinson has painted many of the things we want to buy, over the course of several decades, expropriating both the Panglossian ideal of commercial product photography as well as the roughly hewn yearnings captured from the illustrated covers of pulp novels. Since the dissolution of Artnet magazine, where he served as editor 16 years, Robinson has been able to fully devote himself to painting once more, some of the recent results of which are on display in his first traveling retrospective, organized by Barry Blinderman, former gallerist and director of the University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, the first venue of the show.
Robinson’s paintings, more often than not, make use of commercial illustrations as source material, while also deriving a great deal of their meaning from them. Over the years, Robinson has spoke of the advertising circulars and mail-order catalogs he often employs as “wanting to be art,” and while his physical re-representations in effect complete this goal, a larger debt is owed to the surreptitious art historical referentiality that laces through our culture. This is a canonical appropriation in which classic forms appear and reappear over various iterations, even as the referent is lost. Robinson plays with these brushes with history and the cultural affectations they have given rise to, while questioning the stability of such representations. There is much to draw on in the calculated Never Never Land of advertising; Robinson enters this world not in search of a barometer of the times, or even the means of their unraveling, but rather to observe, report, and allow viewers to come to their own conclusions.
Recent paintings after Lands’ End catalogs capture the innocuous fashion of inconspicuous clothing — the arrangement of tasteful pastel moccasins (Shoes, 2014) or models reduced to bodies, faces removed to direct attention solely to the swimsuit for sale (Sun, Surf, and Style: the Swim Tee, Ride the Wave, 2014). The space of snug familiarity offered by the mail-order catalog is one that has been nearly displaced by the more immediately gratifying Internet; the catalog is in part a fast-fading lexicon of desire, a place for dreams to be bought, or at least coveted. Seen through this cornerstone of old media, the somewhat dowdy styles offered by Lands’ End can seem nostalgic, a middlebrow vision of predictability and contentment, an unchanging standard confounding a world in constant flux.
The comfort of one’s own home, and the food products one can prepare in it, has provided Robinson with another rich source of raw material since the 1990s: the resplendent surfaces of food photography. In Oriental Beef (1994), sauce congeals in autumnal hues with preternatural fluidity, coating the rice below; the plate is tightly cropped, betraying the boxed origin of the source photograph. In another recent series, Robinson has created a taxonomy of burgers, portraying both the home reconstituted and the take-out. The components of Amy’s Veggie Burger (2012), are elegantly fanned out like a hand of cards, the layers carefully displayed in adamant renunciation of its processed origins, while the earlier Big Mac (2008) is a solitary caloric monolith, the undulating surface of the crowning bun turned into a sesame-seeded lunar surface.
In Robinson’s consumer product still-lifes, branding is both emphasized and deliberately obscured, while subjects are returned to sometimes decades later and re-composed. Honey (2014) is beautifully illegible while the Budweiser logo of Three Beers (1987) fades in and out like a memory of the brand. Johnny Walker bottles merger into liquid reds and golds while Vicks Vapor Rub remains sharp with trademarked clarity. These products remain more than their constituent ingredients, even surpassing intended uses; like the ineffable yet instantly identifiable red of Coca-Cola, these are brands as identities, woven into national myth until the seams become indistinguishable, part and parcel to a corporatized American experience that we are all compelled to enter.
The work that proved name-making for Robinson in the early 1980s, adapted pulp novel covers, is likely the most difficult for the uninitiated to enter into. Each painting is a simplified reworking of an original paperback illustration, with titles taken from the novels themselves. At times, these interpretations appear self-explanatory. In Something of Value (1986), a woman grasps a man for support who is armed for a confrontation, evidently near as he defiantly looks over the horizon toward unseen menacing forces. Society Nurse (2011) remains cryptic, with the presumably titular nurse carrying a tray of surgical instruments with a far off look in her eyes. Robinson begins with images projected directly on his canvases, working in the dark, and his paintings are completed with loose, nearly impressionistic brushwork, never losing detail. These paintings archive images that just as easily could be lost to time, reveling in the melodrama of desire that simmered between the original book’s thin covers, outlasting the armature of the stories themselves, now faded away and left to obscurity.
All is archived in Robinson’s work, in one way or another. The present often has a way of becoming tomorrow’s curiosity, and as a compendium of advertising — some of the most fleeting of images created — it serves as an absorbing document, one that continues to grow. There is a certain Postmodern slickness to the transformation that’s affected, an image shifting from one form to another. But unlike many of his fellow appropriators, Robinson is not attempting to splinter the tropes that both propel and stymie culture; the conversion of one commodity into another is presented succinctly and without great fanfare, belying the potential ennoblement that encompasses such a transaction. Hinted at in this work is a romance latent in all images, the cause and course of representation that dwells in our subconscious. Advertising offers solutions, and in his abstractions of our wants, Robinson counters with questions.