With exuberance and dark wit Walter Robinson has explored America’s fascination with the seedy underbelly of urban life for more than three decades. His work has drawn from Film Noir, pop advertising, and trash literature; in the 1980s he dipped into a pool of film stills, paperback book cover art, and pinups (in that age before digital porn), in line with artists such as Robert Longo, David Salle, and Cindy Sherman. Unlike Longo and Salle, who made their images more distilled and sanitary through large-scale studio production, or Sherman, who dove headfirst into making the noir-schlock masterpiece Office Killer (1997), Robinson steadily kept his hand in the mix, developing a painterly touch that belied the appropriationist strategies of the decade.
The eleven new paintings and works on paper in Robinson’s show at Lynch Tham are based on middle-income, middle-American store advertising for Target, JCPenney, Macy’s, and Lands' End, source material particularly relevant to Robinson’s work. Through simple depictions of clothing such as the neatly folded Long Sleeve Plaid, (2014) or the van Gogh inspired Lands' End Boots from $25 (2014)—items that Warhol might have said everyone would wear—Robinson creates an eerie darkness. The shirts are precisely tucked in, like police evidence; the boots kicked asunder. These paintings suggest that in our current moment in time both school shooter and victims might be shopping at Marshall’s.
Walter Robinson, Land's End Boots from $25, 2014, Acrylic on linen, 30 x 24 in.; Courtesy of Lynch Tham Gallery
Robinson’s figurative paintings address the audience they are “selling” to. The implicit stance in Lands' End Swimming in Confidence (2014) and Target Dresses Cardis and Wedge Sandals (2013) is utopian, proposing a happy, healthy, and harmonious world of ever-changing patterns, seasonal colors, and interchangeable, endlessly consumable product. Robinson’s brushwork is integral, informing his ability to draw from these ready-made images a sense of painterly depth that transforms the banality of the advertising image into something seductive on a deeper level.
In Target-D Signed and Shaun White (2013), the strongest work in the exhibit, four boys with skateboards and Beatz headphones smile out at the viewer. The imagery on two of the boys t-shirts is carefully abstracted, drawing our focus into the painting, and we don’t notice right away how staged and frozen the boys’ expressions and postures are. The contrast between the potential menace of a group of young Justin Biebers, and the delight that Robinson takes in the painting of them creates what Marcel Duchamp called a “delay” in painting—we are drawn into the image, but our eyes wander the paths of the brushwork and color. Robinson wrings poetry out of pandering of advertising. It is as if he were a forensic cultural detective, using his brush like a lab scientist dusting for fingerprints. In this case Robinson is using paint, gently probing for the clues and meanings imbedded in the images he reproduces.
Walter Robinson, Long Sleeve Plaid, 2014, Acrylic on linen, 28 x 28 inches; Courtesy of Lynch Tham Gallery
All the most avant-garde of movements, from the Impressionists to the Pop Artists, eventually ended up, to some degree, kitsch decorations. To be "Post-Modern," especially in the 1980s, was a high-wire act, walking a tightrope between aesthetic cynicism and irony; dabbling in kitsch, was, out of necessity, a net. Robinson’s works on paper are an appeal to pleasures of consuming, in particular Lands-End Sleeve Flannel (2013) which shows three plaid shirts, folded and neatly arranged in a row, suggesting that they might be small, medium, and large. Here Robinson is both critical and complicit in this bid for pleasurable consumption. He has often trafficked in kitsch, and in this show in particular, his critical relationship toward the iconography of commerce and his love/hate relationship with popular imagery adds up to a success in measures that few painters working today can match.
(Image on top: Walter Robinson, Land's End Swimming in Confidence, 2014, Acrylic on linen, 36 x 60 in.; Courtesy of Lynch Tham Gallery)