For Cincinnati, Ohio based artist Emil Robinson, painting is a study in the poetics of space. The canvas provides Emil a framework within which to reconfigure and experiment with colors, form and figuration. In his recent work, large swaths of washed out colors in a restrained palette dominate the canvas and draw the eye to small figurative panes or windows inserted into the composition, like fragments torn from other works. The contrasting figurative and abstract languages create an ambiguous narrative rich with the language of symbols and orientated within the trajectory of art history. Emil has a pervasive interest in minimal interior scenes which provide a loosely figurative framework for the study of light, form and composition. In a series of tulip study paintings from this year, Emil imposed a frame-within-a-frame for the study by dividing the canvas into a grid of six panels. In older bodies of work Emil’s approach was less structured and formal, rather exploring the potential and possibilities of abstraction with a language of bright colors and ecstatic forms. Emil’s work however remains anchored in representation and the human form. It’s the interplay between figurative and abstract elements that forms the focus of Emil’s work and conception of space. We spoke with the artist to find out more about his interests in art history, process of working and what’s coming up next.
AMM: Hi Emil! Do you remember the first artwork you sold? What was it and how did you feel?
ER: At my undergraduate thesis show, my painting professor had invited interested members of the local academic community. I was able to sell a number of paintings, and he helped me to understand pricing and the power of selling work – not to commodify my art, but to create the beginning of a community that might support my endeavor and open themselves to what I was offering. It felt great, and I continue to have a healthy relationship to sales and the support it provides.
AMM: Surveying your art from the past six years, you have explored dramatically varied styles and subjects. Please tell us about how your work has changed over the years and what has influenced this development?
ER: The relationship between subject style and meaning is a complex one, but it is the path of an image painter like myself. I’ve always been ambitious about what might be possible in rearranging these elements to communicate in new ways. What has challenged me to innovate? A hunger to hit the limits of what I might understand at any given time, a passion for the ways painting might present itself within a traditional history, a sense of competition with the work of other artists, and the privilege of having the time and space afforded by a supportive family, steady academic job, and good space because of my location off the beaten path – Cincinnati Ohio. I’m a flexible steady person by nature, but I’ve also never compromised my vision, even when the market or circumstances may provide an easier or more reliable path.
AMM: How does the idea or themes for a body of work generally evolve?
ER: Although you mention that my subjects have changed considerably over time, in fact many subjects, and certainly themes, have remained consistent my whole career to date.
AMM: This year you’ve been painting tulips in grids of thirds. What is this body of work about?
ER: For the kind of art I make, this is a complex question. My choice of subjects and methods are the result of years of communication between my knowledge of art history/techniques, and the unspoken language of symbols, hints and Freudian slips. Literally, the tulips were a bouquet for my wife that were on our dining room table for a while before I photographed them. The subsequent paintings of the last year have all been from this one photo. The grid is a means of presenting architecture/boundaries to speak in the context of. As someone raised in a religious family, I am attracted to the subtle subversion and energy that flows through something seemingly inflexible.
AMM: What role does drawing and other media have in your practice?
ER: I’ve spent my whole career drawing from the model weekly. This began when I was a teenager, and felt like a wonderful place to release my mixed feelings about sexuality and my relationship to it. Within this context, the urgency of drawn marks has always provided a fertile space for exploration. In some way every work I make is in response to the simple drawing problem of exploding space by containing it.
AMM: Your art seems to convey a critical awareness of the act and history of painting. Can you tell us more about this?
ER: I am a voracious student of history. These days I’m not interested in quoting art history precisely, but bits of things enter my work directly or indirectly. I’m not ashamed of my deep debt to painting history. It’s where I draw a lot of strength. I think it’s my responsibility to carve my own path through history connecting disparate artists in a constellation that helps guide the path of my work.
AMM: What are some of the moments or movements from art history that interest you and relate to your own art?
ER: There was a book that Robert Storr contributed to called “Modern art despite modernism”. It proposes a group of important painters who rely on seemingly retrograde history and themes yet were in important conversations with their time. The artist John Graham is on the cover who is a member of my own personal pantheon. I like artists who hold back, who show don’t tell. Or if they do tell, it’s with significant restraint or poetry. Think Matisse over Picasso, Ingres over Bouguereau, Gwen John over Sargent, etc. If an artist is able to present complex representational worlds and still be highly distilled/refined – I think these are the greatest painters. Piero, Giotto, Ambrogio Lorenzetti… That’s a limited list – western, mostly male, I can’t escape what formed me.
AMM: What is your understanding of the title ‘artist’?
ER: My grandfather a great architect, artist and designer said “life is art, art is life”. When I visited him the week he died he said: “do everything out of love, only love”. Artists reveal us to ourselves through their work. Art is intimate, it’s a highly personalized mechanism that invites us into someone else’s inner world, while simultaneously making us feel more connected.
AMM: Please give us a snapshot of your process of working.
ER: It’s summer right now, so 7 days a week, 4-6 hours a day. Writing, looking, taking photographs, building personal faith in my surroundings, then arriving at combinations that fit the world I’ve created in my mind.
AMM: When you’re not making art what do you like to get up to?
ER: I’m a big sports guy, I love watching and playing basketball. I also love teaching, reading, exploring other places/traveling/walking through foreign places.
AMM: What ideas are you currently exploring in your work?
ER: I’m currently thinking of images as space, both conceptually and formally. Spaces that might coexist with other spaces of pure color or shape. The emotional rightness of these combinations…The extension from nameable subject into sophisticated formal language of color light space atmosphere without didactic abstraction. Can an image be fully nameable and completely mysterious at the same time? The answer of course is yes, but can I do it in a way that is unique and personal? I’ve drawn the figure for a long time, so one constant is an attempt every couple years to make figurative paintings that are able to communicate with enough ambiguity to suit my poetic needs. Only a few have really worked in my career.
AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?
ER: I always have exciting projects J Just working on a single painting is very exciting to me. Professionally I have a couple of shows coming up and I’m hosting a set of interviews for the College Art Association with some fabulous guests – stay tuned.
Find out more about the artist: www.emilrobinson.com
Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.