Walter Robinson exhibit on view at MMoA
Something as seemingly pedestrian as a cheeseburger or French fries or an old-school jar of Vaseline are imbued with irony and whimsy and are, as Walter Robinson, the creator of these colorful images, observes, a kind of “visual hymn to the hydrogenated consumer utopia of 21st-century America.”
An exhibition of 34 works dating from 1981 to the present by the New York City-based postmodern painter and art critic is on view at the Mystic Museum of Art.
Robinson, 66, is known for his figurative, melodramatic scenes of desire inspired by covers of 1940s pulp paperbacks, as well as his ongoing over-sized still-life subjects of food, pharmaceutical products and stacks of cash. He also was recognized for his abstract “spin paintings” in the mid-1980s, well before his they became the claim to fame of his colleague Damien Hirst.
In the 1980s, Robinson exhibited his paintings with the independent artists’ group Collaborative Projects, Metro Pictures in SoHo, and several galleries in the East Village.
His was the news editor of Art in America, art editor of the East Village Eye, and founded and edited Artnet Magazine.
A traveling retrospective of 90 paintings dating from 1979 to 2012 — “Walter Robinson: Paintings and Other Indulgences” — opened last winter at University Galleries at Illinois State University and ended last week at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery in SoHo.
The reason Robinson’s work is being exhibited at MMoA can be attributed to the museum’s executive director, George King, who curated the show.
“I’ve known Walter for at least a couple decades as an artist, writer and activist in the art world, who was very involved on the lower east side of Manhattan in the ’70s and ’80s when many (contemporary) artists were coming of age,” King says.
“He’s not a big self promoter, and making art is something he always loved doing but for a lot of different reasons he got into writing and editing,” King adds. “He is now back to painting 100 percent of the time.”
King says he wanted to introduce audiences in this part of New England to a good overview of what Robinson is known for and to show what is being made by a nationally recognized New York artist “producing fully mature, very ripe work” at this point in his career.
“I’ve always been drawn to his universally likable images that represent many different things in our society and have a lot to do with consumerism,” King says.
“The show includes his images of food, what he refers to as the ‘norm-core’ paintings.” King says, “and people wearing everyday clothes from Lands End and LL Bean catalogues with no avant-garde trendiness to them. I think those are extremely appealing.”
He believes Robinson’s work differs from famous Pop artists like Andy Warhol in several ways.
“It’s how it’s represented and depicted and how he actually applies the paint to canvas. It’s rather gestural, not mechanical. There’s evidence of the physical act of making art,” King explains. “A lot of his imagery is pop — what we see now and did see in advertisements when they used to advertise (products like) cigarettes. But there’s a tone, a likeability about it — it’s no so hard-edged as (Warhol’s art). There’s something more romantic about how he depicts some of these things.”
Pointing to Robinson’s figurative paintings of romantic scenes, he says, “They’re somewhat filmic; they almost appear like stills from a romance movie.”
In his writings Robinson notes that the return to representational painting “after the sublimities of abstract expressionism and the intellectual extremes of conceptual art, allowed for a particularly sophisticated embrace of the everyday with all its tragedies and comedies.”
King interprets this to mean that Robinson’s work is a simplification, a distillation of the complex world we live in that the artist is able to synthesize into images that are accessible to everyone — like a mouthwatering, juicy, fully loaded bacon cheeseburger.
Despite his subject matter, Robinson’s art isn’t politicized — it doesn’t appear to address the environmental destruction caused by our rampant throwaway society. To the contrary, his paintings are very appealing and attractive.
“His images are not politicized, there’s no question about that,” King notes. “I look at them as fresh images that we tend to see on an everyday basis, depicted with Walter’s scrutiny or filter — sometimes humorous, iconic.”
Of his still lifes, particularly referring to his new cheeseburger series, Robinson said in an email exchange, “For me, it’s all about desire, and all about authenticity. But I also realize that art is an empty vessel that we fill with meaning.”
Although they may not at first appear to have anything in common, King points out that Robinson’s still lifes of consumer products share an underlying theme with his figurative paintings.
“We’re bombarded with all these images of products we wear, we eat, how we look and shouldn’t look, and how we deal with out emotions,” King says. “Human beings are in some ways consumed by each other. And women and men are sometimes representative objects to each other in our society.
“Walter Robinson certainly deserves a notable place in the pantheon of early 21st-century art, “ King comments. “And I think people in this community will realize what bright, happy paintings many of these are, even though some represent more somber moods.”
IF YOU GO
What: A Solo Exhibition of the Work of Walter Robinson
Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic
When: Though Nov. 12. The museum is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Info: Visit www.mysticmuseumofart.org or call (860) 536-7601