Walter Robinson: Salad, Candles, & Money
JOHANNES VOGT | DECEMBER 12 – JANUARY 26, 2019
Walter Robinson’s sardonic eye flits from one banality to another, fusing an Existentialist will to create meaning with a Pop delight in the things of this world. These might be the cover of a cheap 1950s detective novel featuring “the girl from the slums who couldn’t stay good” or a delightfully disgusting Big Mac, or, as in this teasingly under-populated show: salads, cash, and spa candles. Robinson’s driving conceit is consumption, the tireless maw of the world we inhabit with its insatiable appetite for Billy Idol’s “more, more, more.”
Robinson’s vision is very American and derives from our tradition of satiric cartoons used as social criticism. Lurking behind his obsessive denunciation of the contaminated U.S. cornucopia is Robert Crumb, whose sense of humor has affinities with Robinson’s. Also present in his work is Mel Ramos, an infamous depictor of commodity bodies, and James Rosenquist, who transforms America into a collage of junk. Finally, and inevitably, we must include Andy Warhol, whose 1982 rainbow-hued dollar signs hover over this show. So what we have is a self-conscious assimilation and reworking of a tradition—protest art with a difference. Instead of focusing on the moment, Robinson leaps over contingency (the here-and-now) to land in the terrain of ethics. He is a reformer, not a revolutionary, an artist appalled by what he sees, who creates images to show why the status quo is disgusting.
There are only seven works in this show: space at Johannes Vogt is limited. But this did not deter Robinson from scaling up his paintings, some of which are among his largest images. Let’s begin with a leafy appetizer: Joy’s Salad (2018) is, by Robinsonian standards a large painting: 72 × 60. The muted acrylic paint on canvas automatically precludes photorealism, so Robinson is by no means attempting to engage in trompe-l’oeil. Salads by their very nature are a mess, and this one is no exception, but we instantly note how Robinson isolates his salad in esthetic space, framing it with a darkish blue that moderates to violet above and a lighter blue below. The salad, like most objects in Pop Art, is removed from any social context and relocated to the never-never land of art. But where a 17th-century Dutch painter would meticulously re-create a real salad, perhaps to suggest the ephemerality of life, Robinson deliberately blurs the details. This salad is unreal, BECAUSE for Robinson, reality in America is ersatz.
Spa Candles (2018) and Candles (2018) confirm Robinson’s denunciation of our reality as a shabby copy of some ideal. Candles in art have traditionally offered artists an opportunity to experiment, a la George de la Tour, with chiaroscuro. Spa candles, of course, provide more than light: they perfume the air and contribute to the atmosphere of solitary sensual. But Robinson’s candles, instead of evoking delight, summon up a funeral ritual. Spa Candles especially reminds us of just how ephemeral everything in American life has become. Beneath Robinson’s mockery resides a lamentation.
This is a remarkable show because of its stylistic unity and Robinson’s dexterity in passing from the overt frivolity of hands clutching dollars to somber images that remind us of our world’s innate instability.
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.