Interview: Walter Robinson on His Everyday Ordinary Subjects

Walter Robinson’s work communicates a very human sense of longing; our searching for something, a yearning to be content.  With our sense of self untethered from that which is ordained only by ecclesiastical authority, we are free to search wherever we so please.  And if we don’t go looking for it, it will come looking for us.  These days contentment is communicated through a variety of imagery, including the junk that arrives in the mail.

What Walter calls the ‘everyday’ or even ‘boring’ is very close to us, very familiar.  In that familiarity one must break away from the already recognized connection to his images.  Walter reminds that this is called the ‘erotics of looking’: descriptive pictures, social things that are pleasurable to look at. Giving the mundane, other value.  It took some contemplating to see the underlying implications of his work.  Not because of some added realm of mystery, but for this simple fact that self reflection is perhaps something we often avoid because of that icky feeling it gives us.  Guilt, however, is something that Walter says he does not believe in.  But honestly I was observing the stirring of conscience.  I am conscientious of the fact that everywhere I turn, someone has coined a way to sell me satisfaction in life.

Robinson takes these images and feelings and makes them his subject, reversing the lens and thus questioning human motivation.  Playful, steamy, tasty or plain, the door to the interior opens.  Rather than presenting ideas in a comment that they are ‘forbidden’, he takes no authoritative stance.  Walter presents the image of food without suggesting gluttony, romance and lust without the devilishness of desire, casual wear for men and women without idolizing beauty.  His works also have an amusing dialogue with the art world.  Brownies that stack like a Michael Heizer piece, sweaters available in four colors, like an Ellsworth Kelly—they do there job, making you question the logic of perception and influence.

Tell me about your preoccupation with Lands’ End?

I guess turning to something like the Lands’ End catalogue is really contrary because its very middle-brow, non-avant-garde.  There’s nothing really inventive about it, its a kind of denial of that… it’s like a gesture towards, a position that’s taken in terms of not taking a position.  It’s not taking a position, as the position you take, it’s what the postmodernist do.  I’m not going to be an author, I’ll just copy somebody.  I don’t know, it’s just something to do.

Walter Robinson 500 Kohls Nightowl and Early Bird later state 2014 acrylic on canvas 30 x 40 in

It’s something to do?  Are you carrying on a tradition, aligning with something historical?

Suppose you start out with a compulsion to do something or the other.  You enjoy being an artist, you enjoy being a painter.  Then the question is, do you enjoy using colors, or making pictures?  The next question is, what is your subject?  What are you going to make pictures of?  You can make stripe paintings.  Sol Lewitt, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, everyday somebody comes up with a new way to make a stripe painting.  Gerhard Richter made striped photographs, that seemed new.  You could do that, or you can paint pictures of people.  It’s always a question of what the subject is going to be.  I find for myself there’s kind of an erotic catharsis involved, something that appeals to me that stimulates some kind of desire.  In the sense that it is the erotics of looking, it’s rudimentary.  I suppose if you do color abstractions, you’ve sublimated the erotics, transformed it.  Maybe you’re in search of an ideal, or some kind of scientific purity.  If you do the female nude, then you’re engaged in something else.  It’s hard to find a good subject.

I am interested in the different representations of self (WR: you mean like self portraits to begin with?) I’m talking about how we come to understand ourselves, so we talked about that sense of individuality and wanting to express that.  (WR: You mean like abstract expressionism is posited as an expression of the individuals, it’s like a theatre of the individual …action painting).  Yes, it seems what you are after is deeply spiritual in that way.

Gauguin is a Symbolist.  So he is into inner-feeling, as opposed to outer-feeling, that would be the issue of touch.  Symbolism and inner-feelings, as opposed to what preceded symbolism, would be expressionism which was about the mechanics of vision.  So I think it is interesting that we have so many primitivist artists working today.  Like Dubuffet was one, but there are contemporary primitivists who, like Basquiat, he is very popular.  But somehow he is expressing some kind of savage, uncivilized self—a self that’s filled with passions and emotions. Is that what is in those pictures?  So primitivism still plays, even though we are still very rational.  But then what?  Some conceptual artists are very rational.  Did you see the Doug Wheeler show?  It’s like an atmospheric room.

Walter Robinson-Macys Valentines Day 2014

What I see in Basquiat’s primitive expression, is that we have within us all of the different mechanisms to observe and express all of these different levels of human development, and so Basquiat was harking back to the primitive in contemporary times.  How do you view yourself in that context?  What are you looking at today that informs your work, in terms of these different stages of cultural values?

I have a whole bunch of paintings in this room, and I had some in a show downtown, they were all of the romance paintings.  A lot of images of passion, brightly colored and warm, very heated shall we say.  A correspondent of mine talked about being surrounded by this imagery of intense feeling, so it made me realize it represents a certain narrative, or a certain fiction that you want to become part of. This kind of imaginary narratives or fictions that people take to, or that they cleve to, it’s like a world you want to live in.  I guess you could say that Gauguin’s works are images of paradise, although that’s not his intention.   Garden of Eden would be a good example, you know a kind of world that you can inhabit, and it’s brought to life by a picture.  I guess that’s very common place of what a picture is, brings to life this imaginative world that people can inhabit, it’s different or better than the everyday world.  It could be just an exploration, of painting images of boring middle class models, casual work-day people from a Lands’ End catalog, or Macy’s… then I guess you could say it’s exploring a normative behavior appearance.  It’s prescriptive, generally positive (they are trying to sell you something) part of a dynamic—boring.

Walter Robinson-Three Bags 2014

So we have a Lands’ End catalog, an ultra normcore subject—something to flip through on sunday, or whenever the mail carrier delivered it.  With the narrative that you’re presenting, and the narrative that perhaps someone will perceive without your verbal guidance, we have this very simple scene, but yet I think it enables the viewer a certain entitlement to discover a narrative, simply because of the memory process that would happen.  In your interpretation, and considering art as a gift, what is the gift that you bring with your work?

That’s a good question, I don’t know.  That’s funny… I don’t know.  I suppose there’s the strictly artistic qualities.  The colors, the way the paint is used, as an artist you get a great deal of satisfaction out of those things, out of making something that looks good, that looks interesting and that carries some kind of message.  You get good pleasure out of that.  What art has given you a gift this week?

Well, there would be Max Estenger’s. The recognition of the play between raw materials, the artist’s hand.  Having an appreciation for the brush stroke or the invisible brush stroke.  Mostly that recognition of, whether stainless steel or raw canvas, I think it informed my perspective of the use of space and materials and painting.

Max’s show at Molloy was beautiful, witty, challenging, thought-provoking … but these are all qualities, and everything has qualities, you can get that everywhere.  What do you like that’s unique to Max?

Yes, knowing Max’s background, he being the son of Cuban exiles, perhaps being raised in a household where there is not necessarily an antagonistic relationship to this country you now call home, but that from the root of your ethnicity there is an antagonist relationship that is not quite settled, and I felt that his work transcends this.

It transcends the antagonistic relationship that derives from his social circumstance?

Yes, That’s something I felt viscerally when I walked in.

That’s good, that’s what abstract art does in general, it transcends the material world.

But your work, for me there is no immediate.. ‘oh yes this is what I’m sensing, feeling, what I’m receiving from this.’ and that is because, I feel that your work has a mirroring nature.  Because simply by being here, I have contributed to this whether I like it or not.   And so, it requires a very particular kind of self reflection.

What makes you feel like it is a mirror? Its because it is all so popie?  That’s what pop art does.

Walter Robinson Peanut Butter 2013 acrylic on canvas 12 x 16 web size

Well, it’s contemporary… a part of the culture that I am living in today, and it makes me question values, and perhaps it brings up memories of personal history.  So there is cultural history and presence… in my own past and present.  So yes in your works immediacy, there are effective elements deriving from pop art.  There’s the critique of materialism here, (WR: not much of a critique)  But you know as the viewer, depending on their background and experiences, they could layer with their own interpretation.  Looking at jars and jars of peanut butter, could make one people feel guilty for comparatively having so much food in this world.

I don’t believe in guilt, its a leftover from Christianity.

You mentioned when we were looking through your flat files that, for example, the brownies look like a sculpture.  How do you engage with patterns and objects in your work to reflect on, past works.

Well those are just like jokes, part of the search for a subject, part of the dialogue between high and low.  So, Michael Heizer makes these earth work type sculptures where he has two huge slabs of rock.  He has one resting on the other, and he calls it ‘Against’, and then you go into a supermarket and you see Duncan Hines brownie mix and you have these two square brownies.  They’re the exact same thing.  That sort of dialogue is very inside-ry, you know, that dialogue amuses me.  If I want to paint brownies, to paint them as if they’re some sort of minimalist earth work, it just appeals to me.  So the Spiral Jetty is like a spiral cinnamon bun, french fries are like a Jasper Johns pop art piece.  I guess it is part of a rationale, I want to paint a painting of four Lands’ End sweaters, you see they’re selling you sweaters, in all different colors.  And I think, that’s like an Elsworth Kelly painting, that is what he would do.  He would divide the painting in four brightly colored squares, in a way it is trying to take the piss out of the pretensions of modern abstraction.  And in that I proudly follow in the footsteps of Manet, the first author to use humor to advance his sort of aesthetic position.

Walter Robinson 500 J Crew Ludlow Suit Jacket with Double Vent in Brown Italian Wool Flannel 2014

I feel as if when people speak or write about art, there is obviously the high mindedness, or even just being articulate, but it seems as if it is being pulled out of culture, when obviously it is happening within.  Your work is a reminder that art is culture, it is not separate or happening on its own axis, it is happening within.

That’s a good thing to say, it’s part of the world

Yes, part of the world, and the world is obviously influencing art and vice versa.  Would you say that is part of your practice to be very upfront about that notion, that truth?

Well, one of the great things about being an artist is that you can just do your thing, and other people can come along with things that you never thought of!  You know it is really a ridiculous business to be in, the painting business, the business of art.  Although, I guess we keep doing it.

You can see Walter’s latest works at an upcoming solo exhibition at LYNCH THAM Gallery, a wonderful space dedicated (in part) to historical artists and their reemergence.

Walter Robinson / Figure Studies

Opening Wednesday, May 28th 6-8p

LYNCH THAM Gallery—175 Rivington Street, NYC

On View May 28th-July 13th, 2014