breath, interview with robin rose
INTERVIEW BY: ZOE RASTEGAR
Robin Rose is an adroit artist of his generation with a unique art form. His work is the essence of a cosmic curiosity and his profound observation of nature, as he constantly discovers the riches of nature around him. His muse is the bountiful domain of rocks and pebbles, rivers and springs that inspires him to create. Robin applies a specific technique to each painting, that he prepares with patience as he goes on a journey to an unknown destination. His untamed approach provides him an unlimited scope of imagination and desire for discovery that not only transcends his art beyond the ordinary, but it also demands a deeper appreciation and interpretation from his audience.
His latest series, Breath, is the product of such curiosity and sensitivity to the world around him. Suddenly, he has a vision, a word such as breath comes to his mind and he prepares for a journey not knowing where it will end up. “I allow the painting to generate its own being.” And in this case the journey ends up with 19 pieces of enigmatic and inspiring pieces. With each piece the artist takes us through labyrinths of darkness and light, anguish and peace and from desperation to hope. In a way it translates to all stages of our physical and mental experience of the pandemic. Suddenly, it all comes together, and vision turns to reality of the moment. He realizes he has created 19 pieces which could be symbolic of Covid19. Although the series could be interpreted differently, but no doubt it portrays our challenging journey through Covid19 with its pain and darkness and yet with a message of hope and optimism.
With so many questions remaining, let us hear from the artist himself:
RE: Please tell us about your background and your personal journey to become an accomplished artist.
ROBIN: I am an only child. I have always spent time alone and have been driven by curiosity, to discover the world around me. My art is driven by this same curiosity. As a child I lived in the organic environment of central Florida. It is a magical place with its rivers, lakes, springs and caves. Nature exists there in an exotic array of plants, animals and geological forms. My interests have always been to discover mysterious places and things.
RE: What motivated you to become an artist, who and what inspired you. Take us inside your heart and mind, while you are envisioning a new creation.
ROBIN: As a finder and a collector there was always an incredible bounty of historical objects buried in the earth, submerged in lakes and springs, and hidden in the dense Florida foliage. I would scuba dive, walk fields, dig and investigate caves looking for artifacts from past civilizations. I have always been an archeologist at heart. I see painting as this same kind of excavation, a kind of discovery. I became an artist because I was driven to create a vision I do not already see in the world around me. When I start to paint, I am setting in motion an excursion to a discovery that reinforces my curiosity. A psychologist might say that the act of painting reinforces my optimism and gives me hope. I think that is correct. I find endless variation in nature and the natural world. I find that crystals, rocks and plants have forms that liberate my imagination. When I paint I seek to create patterns or forms that you might imagine seeing through a microscope or a telescope; forms that seem to be familiar from a natural world that you just can’t place. This is the discovery I seek. When my painting becomes an enigma that is the point that I step away. For me, the painting has become a whole that is greater than its parts. That is the painting I am searching for.
RE: Are there any mentors or influences you like to mention?
ROBIN: My mentors are numerous. I look to artists like Morris Louis, Turner, Rothko, Pollock, Pinkham- Ryder, Arthur Dove, and Giotto. I am also inspired by musicians. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Brian Eno, and Steven Reich are among my favorites. Each of these artists has an eccentric vision and a desire to uniquely express that vision sometimes technically, and sometimes theoretically. I am inspired by contemporary artists like Wolfgang Leib, Peter Doig and Ross Bleckner. Leon Berkowitz and Joseph White were among my early artist friends in Washington, as were Kevin MacDonald and Michael Clark. My continuing inspiration owes much to many.
RE: Tell us about your education and artistic training.
ROBIN: I attended Florida State University and found in the art department a focus for my curiosity. While working on my Masters of Fine Arts at FSU, I was deeply inspired by my graduate school professors. Karl Zerbe is considered the progenitor of contemporary encaustic painting. He introduced me to the medium and challenged me to investigate new techniques within the medium. The English artist Trevor Bell was a master of color. He was instrumental in directing my attention to color field theory and to the minimalist movements occurring in the late 60s. He personally introduced me to Leon Berkowitz, the luminist color field painter. It was because of Leon and Trevor that I came to Washington, DC in 1976.
RE: How about your particular technique, material and the process, why and how do you choose this technique?
ROBIN: This desire to search is the basis of my approach to painting. I prepare for the adventure by designing a specific technique for each painting. Much like an adventurer would prepare for an excursion, by assembling supplies for the journey, be it the mountains, desert or jungle, different supplies are required for different destinations. This relates to my paintings with a different technique, so is required for a different destination or vision.
Encaustic is an ancient technique. It is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedia, ‘Naturalist Historia,” written in the 1st century AD. In it Pliny cites the Greek artist Pausias, as the inventor of encaustic painting during the 4th century BC.
The word encaustic means to burn in. The medium must be heated to liquid form before it can be applied to a substrate or armature. The process of applying the hot wax to the armature is a bit like alchemy. The liquid hardens instantly and transforms into a solid.
The formula for encaustic paint is different in the hands of different artists. I make my paint from scratch. My formula is a mixture of beeswax, carnuba wax and demar varish crystals. To this base I add raw mineral pigment. Unlike other paint mediums, I can manipulate the amount of pigment to achieve a more translucent or more opaque presentation. I can layer many translucent pigments or alternate translucency with opacity.
The waxes that compose the encaustic medium have a kind of relationship to the world of nature that is ever present as I work. The beeswax has an aroma of honey. It has a texture that can feel like skin. Encaustic paint dries very quickly. This allows for intense momentum in the act of painting. I can apply layer after layer without pause. But I can also excavate away layers to disclose the complexity of the underlying surface. Encaustic is also very mutable. I can heat it, chill it, and carve into it. It is a perfect medium for invention. I am drawn to encaustic for all of these reasons: its history, its mutability, its momentum, and its elemental nature.
I work flat on a table. I am constantly turning the painting as I work. This helps establish a trance state, or zone. In a perfect world there would be no top or bottom to the painting. I am often absorbed in the journey of discovery. The last thing I do to the painting is to determine a top or bottom in a horizontal or vertical painting. In truth, this is a way to bring the painting down and apply gravity and aesthetic judgment. This is often the most difficult aspect of creating the painting. It is my final intention.
My palette is dictated by the desires of the painting. I convince myself to stay out of the way. It is important to get into the trance zone quickly and not to edit myself. Since I develop a different technology for each painting I try to let the rhythm of the process open the color. There is a sound, a musical component to the work. When a painting is finished I can hear it hum. The space in my work is like sound floating. I hang the paintings so they orbit off of the wall, released from gravity, enhancing curiosity and mystery.
RE: Robin, how do you describe your current work now? Please elaborate about the current series. Take us to your journey creating these pieces of art.
ROBIN: On March 15th, my family and I moved to our beach house in Rehoboth Beach, DE. I have a great studio there. We were concerned about Covid19 and wanted to get away from the city. Our house is humble with no insulation, a seasonal home. We expected to be there for a month but stayed until mid -December, when we had to turn the water off.
On March 15th, I started a diptych entitled, “Breath.” I had no idea I would finish the series of 19 paintings documenting this extraordinarily difficult period of time. I finished the last painting on January 19th. The last painting in the series is titled, “Release.” I needed to get out of the way of the painting. I needed to allow the painting to. generate its own being.
The titles came to me first. I would waken in the middle of the night with the titles. I trained myself to recall these. I had to cross out any other conversation or words. Once I had the title/word I had to keep it from escaping, had to remember it and recall it. The words functioned as a map to the next painting. In my studio I would repeat the word like a mantra before I started the painting. This created a rhythm and would establish the entry point into the painting. That sound, that word would resonate, would activate the surface of the painting into its inherent DNA, its inherent color and form. After 52 years of painting, the paintings are telling me what to be. I am training myself to listen.
RE: How do social and cultural challenges influence your creation? Does your art carry a message?
ROBIN: When I went deep into my studio starting March 15th in Rehoboth, I was, like everyone else, confined by the pandemic. Rehoboth is a coastal town. I was either in my studio or walking on the beach contemplating my existence in a complex and newly compromised world. Time will show this period to be of great historical importance. I was inspired and horrified by the global pandemic and by our national political arena. The psychological impact of those events has been profound. As an artist, all I could do was document this developing story and make visual sense of my responses. I became obsessed with telling this story as truthfully as I possibly could through the means I know best, my paintings.
The message in this body of work is embedded in the matter that is the paint itself. This is a documentation of my truth during this period of time. I realize that my truth is just that, my truth. But my commitment to a linear revelation of an unfolding human drama is unflinching. The paintings are chronologically in order yet at the conclusion of the series, I am aware that there is crosstalk that extends from one painting to another, across their chronological range. This body of work is like a book. There are many characters and they interact. The sum of the book is influenced by all of the assembled characters.
RE: Any major projects on the way in the near future?
ROBIN: I am giving a talk about my work at the Phillips Collection with Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Vesela Sretenovic, on April 15th. An exhibition of this body of work will be at Hemphill Artworks from April 1 to the end of May, of this year.
RE: What is your view of art in general?
ROBIN: It is my belief that art incorporates all aspects of life. Perhaps that is why it has lasted 40,000 years. The condensing of life and time into a moment, art does this well. Painting is so old it must be in our DNA. Look at Lascaux, look at any prehistoric cave paintings. Shaman/ magicians did this magical work for their communities. It is a prime resonant frequency. Art lingers. There is an element of the elusive and mysterious in all art. When art appears effortless it seems like magic. Technique disappears so matter can vibrate into integration. I would like my paintings to be seen not just with the eyes, but with all of the senses. I would like the color and form to penetrate deeply into your sense experience.
RE: And how would you describe your art?
ROBIN: At this point I describe my work as an enigma, and certainly a curiosity. The work appears as a singular thing that exudes presence and essence.
It is hard to define or classify. And that is very fine with me.
RE: Where do you have your exhibits and how can people could access your paintings?
ROBIN: I am represented by Hemphill Artworks. You can see my work on their website. www.Hemphillartworks.com. My most recent work Breath, could be accessed on my website: www.robinroseart.com. My work is held in museums like the Hirshhorn Museum, the Menil Collection, the Phillips Collection, the George Washington University, and the Sarasota Museum of Art. None of these works are currently on view. You can see two commissioned works in Columbia Square, the IM Pei designed building at 975 F Street. The greatest number of my works are held in private and corporate collections, not available to the public.
RE: What is your message to the young artists and supporters of art in our community?
ROBIN: I would ask the community to look at this immensely trying period of time through the lens of no art, no movies, no books, no entertainment, no theater, no dance, no distractions. I long to see theater in the flesh, hear music at a concert, eat a meal at a lovely restaurant, visit a museum or gallery, or go on a studio visit. I long to enrich my spirit and soul. If anything, this period of time has taught us, and our community, how much the arts play a part in our human well-being. Support of art and artists is a necessity.
The arts are about communication. They have adapted and performed exceptionally well in this time of need. To young artists I say, this is an incredible time for innovation. It is time to think outside the box. By utilizing new technologies, you have the opportunity to reach vast audiences that have never been available in the past. I encourage young artists to dig deep and commit to their craft. It is not a simple task, but an important one, for certain.