This summer, the Taft Museum of Art is introducing The Keystone Contemporary Series. This annual exhibition presenting emerging artists will debut with a solo show by Cincinnati artist, Emil Robinson.
Robinson graduated with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Cincinnati in 2006 and a bachelor of arts from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in 2003. In 2007, he received a grant from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation, a Canadian organization that supports emerging representational artists from around the world. The grant allowed him to spend six months painting in London. Recently, Robinson was shortlisted for the “Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2009.” Robinson paints daily in his East Walnut Hills studio and teaches figure drawing and painting at the University of Cincinnati and at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center.
The artist answered a few questions about Contemporary Realism in general as well as discussed elements about his work in particular.
1. As someone who finds analyzing abstract art much easier than reading realist works, I find myself looking for the abstract in your work. The angles or grids that make up your composition or are in fact subject of some of your paintings tempt me to ignore the realism for something more formal or theoretical. The birth of Contemporary Realism was spurred by its lively and perhaps frustrating competition with abstract art. Do you find that struggle between the two styles today? If so, how does it manifest itself in your work? Do you struggle with a prevalence of abstract art or minimalism in the galleries today?
That is a pretty involved question. While it is true that many painters express frustration over the divide between these seemingly separate modes of picture making, I see the question a little differently. I am not interested in mimicking the world around me. I believe that all good painting stems from invention. Painting is the act of constructing an abstraction. The most intelligent and powerful realist work exists as a formal masterpiece. The cerebral and intuitive balancing of one color value or shape against another is the silent language of painting. In the service of a sincere and private vision it is the stuff of great work. Even photorealist work engages with abstraction inherently. In my work I am interested in new ways of experiencing common spaces, objects, or actions. It is the “construction” or “invention” in a painting that creates this “new familiar”.
Despite being maligned cyclically over the last 40 years, painting of all kinds is thriving in today’s contemporary art world. Your question about minimalism is a good one for me because I was raised around a spare modernist aesthetic. I am very attracted to things that get down to the heart of an idea or image. Minimalist work can create a meditative space that I am inclined towards. I think that reflection is something that our world needs desperately. I don’t struggle with what is in galleries today when it is particularly abstract or minimal. I struggle with work that is wrapped in bullshit or fits a flavor of the minute. I find much performance work to be boring, esoteric, or lazy, and I find a lot of work across the genres to suffer in a similar way.
2. Similarly, how does the aesthetic of digital art affect Contemporary Realism? Do you see it playing a part in your work? Is there room for other media or tools in this genre? Or is it always painting?
The computer is a new and powerful tool for making paintings. The effects of it are wide reaching and hard to assess at the moment. Certainly artists are turning to computer effects for new ways of describing forms and space. I find it dangerous to throw new aesthetics into a mix and I prefer to allow my work to slowly consume and assume various techniques and forms. That being said I am open for whatever will serve my vision. However, I am very suspicious of new ideas I have and I do not act on them until they seem inevitable. I currently use Photoshop to make some of my compositional sketches and I have begun experimenting with digital photography. One of my central concerns as an artist is the power of images. I am interested in the difference between photography and painting, and the various ways they can be intermixed. One of the pieces for the show at the Taft “Convergence” incorporates a large format digital print mounted on laser cut Dibond panel. The two paintings that flank the photo are on the same material. Dibond panel is very thin and light and in profile it nearly disappears. This is important because I am trying to expose the thin veneer that really is a painting. Many artists choose chunky structures for their work to promote the object hood of the painting, but I want to show its essential flatness. It seems more poignant somehow that something with deep space and three dimensional forms is really just a wafer of material.
3. Last year I spoke with a realist painter, Kate Holterhoff who then seemed frustrated by what appears to be a very conservative local audience for the arts that rejected the nude. Considering the monumental presence of the nude in realist art, I was surprised to learn of her experience. If I remember correctly, we weren’t sure or at least not convinced that this rejection resulted from her being a woman painting nudes but simply the local audience. Do you paint nudes? Do you sense a similar audience rejection of the nude in realist painting? If so, is this rejection expressed outside of the country as well?
Kate is a good friend of mine and I have a lot of respect for her talents! I think that among many there is a fear of sexuality that is manifested in any naked body. The power of nudity is undeniable and people can have mixed reactions. In general I would say that the art world sees nudity in work as “old fashioned” or conservative. I do paint and draw the nude and I am unashamed to admit my fascination and awe of the human body. I think that the nude figure is a powerful reminder of our shared fears and grandeur.
4. Now to get a bit closer to your work specifically. What immediately struck me and I found most interesting about your work is your interest in domestic settings. Your paintings are often of private settings, presumably in your home. Considering you’ve spent time outside of the country, I’m surprised all of your works are of interior private, domestic spaces. I don’t expect London landscapes, but do you explore more public spaces in your work?
The main reason for this is straightforward. I paint what I know. I seek transformational moments in the places I live my life. I want my paintings to look like a world the viewer knows well, but has never quite seen this way before. I want the works to be enigmatic and distilled. Interiors are indicative of a certain introspective mood that has suited my artistic personality for the last few years.
5. Do you find an inspiration or even refuge in the New Leipzig School? For example, I see some comparison between you and Matthias Weischer. You both share the subject of interior spaces and even more abstract emphases of angles and architectural geometries. Perhaps your work is more reflective of what you’ve studied at DAAP. Is there a comparison to be made between you and the German artist or DAAP and the German school?
Totally unrelated to the current school of art at UC, DAAP was founded on Bauhaus principles, and the building is a modernist work of importance. Matthias Weischer is a painter I admire and one of the only Leipzeig painters that holds my attention in any serious way. I like the way Weischer creates space that is recognizable yet fantastic. An artist I admire much more who also did this was Balthus. The problem with most of the Leipzeig painters of skill is that there is a facile empty mechanical quality to their paint. Christian Hellmich is a good example, in that at first glance his paintings are incredible, color, design, texture… but after a few minutes they exist as a husk. You can almost hear him saying “well I slathered the paint on over there, so I need to drag it on here, and this section should be painted with a small brush…” AND THAT’S IT
So many contemporary painters have this relationship to their work. There is an almost sheepish attitude that says “yeah Ill make it flashy, but I don’t really care about what I am painting about and I don’t actually like painting isn’t that ironic?”
Weischer has more of a sense of investment in his pictures, but he also gets a little mechanical, I really like his most minimal and abstract work.
Axis Mundi will open at the Taft Museum of Art on July 31st. The four paintings in the exhibition will be seen for the first time in the Taft’s Keystone Gallery.
I will have an opportunity to talk more with Robinson about the importance of geometry to the artist and its spiritual implications. We will talk about the feeling of transcendence as a main goal in painting and how he achieves this in Axis Mundi. My continuing discussion with Emil Robinson and a review of the show will appear in the next issue of AEQAI.