Robinson’s artwork examines and highlights the historical, collective, and often cyclical nature of the visual language of revolution and unrest. His multidisciplinary work is currently showcased in an online-only exhibition, “Andrew Cornell Robinson: The Time of Protest and Plague,” now featured on our WING project space and Artsy profile. View work from the exhibition on Artsy
Studio in the Time of Protest and Plague.
June 10, 2020 Interview with Andrew Cornell Robinson
By Michael Gormley
Living in a city driven by artistic ambition, “What are you working on” is the go-to question meant to quickly distill the daring of one’s aspirational reach, the aesthetic value of its form and the intent and likelihood of financial success and lasting fame. In the upheaval of social unrest and pandemic, the question sizes up how one is to staying alive. Over the past three months Equity has been posting text, images and videos of pandemic projects its member artists have been engaged in.
At the onset of the corona plague in NYC, I found myself having a recurring dream that prominently featured Phrygian caps, the red liberty caps worn by radicals during the French revolution. A symbol which has its roots in ancient times when it was worn to signify a formerly enslaved person's freedom.
In any case the image and dream seemed significant so I began to draw a series of Phrygian caps with gouache, pastel and ink on hand made paper.
Andrew Cornell Robinson and Matt Rota, curated by Michael Gormley
March 21st - April 13th, 2019 Opening Reception: Thursday, March 21st, 6 PM-8 PM
Equity Gallery 245 Broome Street, New York, NY 10002 Gallery Hours: Wednesday - Friday, 1-7 PM and Saturday, 12-6 PM
Equity Gallery is pleased to present Hard-Line, a two person exhibition curated by Michael Gormley featuring the artwork of Andrew Cornell Robinson and Matt Rota. By its very nature, the line is considered to be a building block of art-making. It is used as the first step in planning a creative endeavor, the structural scaffolding upon which the artist further builds. However, Robinson and Rota look past this view, realizing the full potential of the line, and allowing it to play a predominant role within their artwork. These two distinctly different artists share a creative implementation of graphic line-work. In their works, lines become an effective and powerful tool for a complex yet straightforward, efficient visual communication and narrative. They utilize the naturally sturdy and rigorous nature of the line, making it a driving force within their art. Through these graphic techniques, their artworks possess a blunt, unwavering immediacy, managing to impart hard-hitting topically relevant subject matters while still retaining an emotionally resonant candor.
The prints and drawings of Robinson are inspired by a visit to Talking Sculptures of Rome, also known as The Congregation of Wits, specific ancient sculptures that were appropriated by the Roman community to serve as a physical repository for public postings, ranging from prayers, to poems, to political manifestos. Robinson takes the spirit of this aggregation of classical art, agitprop, and crude graffiti and applies it to his latest body of work. Robinson gathered 1,000 of his rough, exploratory sketches and compiled them into a series of prints. These adapted drawings fluctuate stylistically and thematically. While some of the subjects are delicately rendered with thin, clean narrow lines, and retain a sense of naturalism, others are bold, sketchy, and extremely gestural, sometimes imparting only the bare essence of what the drawing is representing. The wildly varying styles of draughtsmanship lend themselves well to the dizzying spectrum of subjects that Robinson depicts in his artwork. Nude figures, foodstuffs, modernist furniture, household items, fashion, masks, public figures, and tyrants of the past and present are deftly combined, creating a free association based bricolage that maintains a cohesive yet uneasy cultural narrative. At times, he combines short phrases written in a wide array of fonts, jumbled together. By juxtaposing the lettering against the printed sketches, the text is broken down into its essential elements, revealing just the lines themselves, but still retaining a hint of their original meaning. While mostly monochromatic, color is sometimes introduced in abstracted swaths and layered on in a manner similar to newspaper halftone printing. This serves to further highlight the more formalistic components of the line-work while heightening the hectic nature of the compositions. Through his emphasis on expressive lines and clashing thematic and formalistic rendering, Robinson captures the riotous zeitgeist of popular and political unrest and distills disparate components into an unwieldy and simultaneously succinct form.
While Robinson uses the rough, bare-boned nature of line-work to evoke the wider atmosphere of the contemporary epoch, Rota’s body of work is more particular. Rota turns his focus to precise moments and instances of contemporary political upheavals, injustices, and catastrophes. Often taking inspiration from the constant deluge of news in the digital age, he refines the cacophony of information into unique, pinpointed narrative scenes while embodying the bigger picture. Recently, Rota’s focus has turned to the ever-increasing cataclysmic ecological and human toll resulting from global warming. He composes scenes mimicking the vantage point of satellite images, allowing the audience to survey the crafted locations from an almost omnipotent, god-like perspective. Rota’s drawings are presented in stark black and white, making the detailed, vivid line-work all the more present and visible. Settings of blasted, scorched earth, weather-battered abandoned buildings, increasingly crowded and shrinking enclaves of human inhabitation, and encroaching ominous expanses of water are all meticulously executed. Strokes of ink are bundled and cross-hatched to create thick, dramatic shadows and claustrophobic spaces, or sparingly utilized in small, yet highly kinetic tufts to impart crushing, expanding vastness and dread. This alternation between heavy, granular detail and scarce, negative spaces serves to heighten the weighty ambience of anxiety about the precarious current state of the world. These painstakingly intricate depictions signify a relatable, human story full of pathos, while being a dire warning about the scope and gravity of environmental trauma.
Robinson and Rota use the concise essence of drawing and linework to convey larger messages about the complicated, unstable, and politically restless present. The lines’ versatility and uncanny ability to relay scale, feeling, tension, and information in a elegantly candid way causes both artists’ works to have a clear intellectual and emotional impact on their audience.
Hard-Line will be on view at Equity Gallery from March 21st to April 13th, 2019.
About the Artists
Andrew Cornell Robinson (b. 1968 Camden, NJ) is a contemporary artist who creates sculptural assemblages comprised of ceramic and mixed media juxtaposed with expressive prints and paintings that coalesce in works alluding to myth, ritual and memory.
He studied ceramic sculpture at the Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, and the Maryland Institute College of Art where he received a BFA. He was awarded an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, where he became interested with the intersection of memory, identity, politics and power.
He has been featured in many publications including Sculpture and Maake magazines, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, Gay City News, Art Info, etc. His work was featured in “Correspondence between NYC & P-au-P,” a publication about the dialogue between artists from Haiti and New York City. He has participated in curatorial and research projects and was a participating artist in Debtfair a project in the Whitney Biennial. Robinson received an Edward F. Albee fellowship residency. He was a visiting artist with Urban Zen, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and a resident artist at the Agastya Foundation, in Bangalore, India. He is also the recipient of an Urban Glass Merit Scholarship. He is a member of the faculty at Parsons School of Design, and Greenwich House Pottery. Robinson lives and works in New York City.
Matt Rota is an illustrator, educator and author. He studied fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and illustration at the School of Visual Arts. His clients include The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Politico, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Marshall Project, ProPublica, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Center for Investigative Journalism, Zeit, and The Guardian, amongst others. He is an instructor at The School of Visual Arts, and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. His drawings and prints have been exhibited internationally. He is the author of two books on drawing from Rockport Press, The Art of Ballpoint, and Pencil Arts Workshop.
AS: Let’s talk a bit about yourself first – where did you grow up?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I was born in Camden, New Jersey and raised on the outskirts of New York City, where I was apprenticed at the age of ten and spent eight years working in a ceramics studio. It planted a seed in my mind about the inherent value of working with one’s hands. A partial scholarship to art school in Baltimore, offered a way out of small town life. As a major in ceramics, I also studied drawing and sculpture, which altogether led me abroad to the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. I moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts where I got my MFA.
AS: What are some major milestones in your life /art journey?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I was fortunate to meet some brilliant artists in New York including Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Diane Torr, Frank Moore, Judy Pfaff, Frank Holliday, Juana Valdes and Paul Cadmus, et al; each of whom made an impact upon my work. In particular, the late playwright Edward Albee generously invited me to his foundation in Montauk, where I worked as an artist in residence. It was a wonderful place to experiment and focus on making art each day. It resulted in a series of small ceramic sculptures and “Society Portraits” comprised of drawings examining class, a theme that continues to run through my work.
AS: I think it is safe to describe you as a “multi-disciplinary” artist – you make ceramic sculptures, installations, paintings, and drawings with great fluidity between these disciplines. What can you tell me about that and your process in general?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Yes, I think it is safe to say that I’m a bit of a polymath. My interests and education in ceramic, sculpture and drawing gave me an appreciation of craft. Working through different media allows me to stretch an idea and see how it transforms through drawing, sculpture, clay, collaborations, costumes, performance or printmaking. There is an inclination toward the theatrical in my work.
Like a great performance, each time an idea is translated through a material or process, a network of images emerges; connected to each other like fragments of a narrative offering insights through a broad vocabulary honestly reflecting the way the world appears to me – tumultuous, diverse, joyful, dangerous, tragic, complex, queer and beautiful.
Congregation of Wits, 2018, by Andrew Cornell Robinson, a work in progress, ink, paper, silkscreen, ceramics, photo courtesy of Arts+Crafts Research Studio
AS: From my visit to your studio, it is pretty apparent that drawing is a crucial constant in all your work. Can you tell me about the role of drawing in your process?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Drawing is a constant for me. I have kept a sketchbook for most of my adult life. I draw in it every day. After I left school, I didn’t have a studio so I promised myself that I would draw regularly, thinking that if I didn’t continue to make something each day I would lose my mind. So, each day when I rode the subway, I would draw who or whatever was in my field of vision between one or two stops. This daily practice forced me to look and draw quickly. There was no time to be precious. Having to make a mark and deal with the hustle and bustle of the moving train, and life on its own terms, forced me to draw gesturally, and out of that emerged a line quality that feels vital.
Thankfully, this daily drawing habit of mine has spanned well over twenty years. I have amassed a collection of thousands of drawings. Lately I have been looking back over all of this work, seeking out patterns across time and line, looking for themes and gathering collections of imagery for a series of larger works on paper. I imagine what you saw in the studio the other day, were some of these drawings. It is a joyful thing to do each day.
AS: Ceramics has been considered “craft” even way after Picasso has experimented with it in the mid -20th century. How do you see the fairly recent renaissance in Ceramic sculpture and your work in this context?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Ceramics has a nearly universal appeal because of the ways that each of us responds to it: making emotional associations through artifacts – a favorite mug, a cherished bowl, a significant memory. The sentimental appeal of things is something that I am cultivating in my work. I also ask questions related to personal and socio-political ideas such as: What is that emotional / mysterious something or other that separates an art object from an everyday artifact? How does the material or visual form trigger an association for the viewer? How does an idea stay open to allow others to project their own lived experience?
As much as I am seduced by the nostalgia of craft traditions, I make a point of seeking balance across form and craft so that it supports the inherent poetry within my work.
AS: Can you give me an example?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: “Bloodlines” is an interdisciplinary project that led me to be more conscientious of the conceptual underpinnings of craft and materiality. That project included ceramics, sculpture and costumes created as artifacts belonging to a pair of fictional queer revolutionaries and presented as an exhibition framed as a revisionist historical society. There was a common theme across multiple materials and processes of making that pointed to a new way of thinking about craft as a conceptual strategy.
Andrew Cornell Robinson, Reliquary I, Porcelain, oribe glaze with engobe silkscreen transfer, vermillion oil, wood, enamel, 12 x 24 x 8 inches, photo courtesy of Arts+Crafts Research Studio
AS: Can you elaborate on how you see your work in relation to the increasingly elusive line between commercial / craft/ design-oriented art and “fine” art?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I am interested in making with a deep attention to materials – motivated by aesthetic and conceptual explorations of desire, behavior or belief, but always through materials. Design and craft tend to be systematic in nature, and that appeal to me. I generally ignore the elusive lines that separate disciplines, and I like to ritualize the creative process.
The disciplinary distinctions between design, craft and art have never made much sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I cut my teeth working with my hands, learning from artisans who taught me to work through the material, technical, aesthetic and conceptual challenges simultaneously. I’m eternally grateful for that way of thinking through making.
AS: How do you see “design” in context of your work process?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Looking across my work spanning art, craft, and design methods, I developed a “Persona” as another way for me to approach making things. The design persona, a tool employed by industrial designers, takes the form of an archetypal person who has needs and goals that are referenced in order to create requirements for a particular project. For example, think of an archetype of a flight attendant in the 1960s, who has a need to quickly traverse a busy airport to make a connecting flight, all the while lugging a heavy suitcase. Out of this persona, a designer might identify an opportunity to put wheels, a telescoping handle on the suitcase, and voila – the rolling suitcase is born.
I thought about making art for the needs and goals of a persona ostensibly outside of myself as liberating, because it freed me from the tyranny of the “original” idea. Many of the projects in my studio over the past ten years have begun this way. Often, they are inspired by radical, revolutionary and queer characters, based on historical or literary figures.
AS: Tell me more about your fictional characters.
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Jean Genet, Jeanette Winterson, Christopher Isherwood, and Charles Dickens all offer interesting characters that resonate with my desire to make room for queer and radical voices that are usually silenced. For example, Charlotte, one character that I developed, was a mash-up of Charlotte Corday, the French assassin of Jean Paul Marat; Divine, the transvestite in John Waters’ films; and the Dickensian antagonists Madame Defarge and Miss. Havisham.
I used Charlotte as a starting point to collaborate on the creation of a corseted gown that I wore while embroidering the names of oligarchs in braille. Wearing this gown, I sang an a capella version of “Bésame Mucho” (“Kiss me a lot”) by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, which the jazz composer Brett Sroka transformed into a looping chant called “Bésame Macho”. It accompanied my exhibition of prints, photographs, drawings, ceramic and sculpture at Art During the Occupation Gallery .
Andrew Cornell Robinson, Our Lady of the Flowers, installation at Christopher Stout Gallery, embroidered wool, cotton, nylon, color photograph printed on metal, ceramic, rubber, wood. Variable dimensions 72 x 53 x 9 inches. 2015-16, Courtesy of Art During the Occupation Gallery
AS: Let’s go back to your personal history. You mentioned in our previous conversations that you are coming from “Mayflower” pilgrims. Deep roots in the American dream. You seem to mine that mythical Americana heritage throughout your work. What are your thoughts there?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Mythical? There’s nothing mythical about it. Yes, it is true. Some of my ancestors did indeed come over on the Mayflower. I could be a member of the “Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution” if I bothered to pay my membership dues. I can’t take any credit for their successes or shortcomings. It’s a miracle the pilgrims survived that first winter. They were anything but prepared. Still, they had their faith, and they also had cannons, so that seemed to help when they occupied the land of the indigenous peoples on what became Provincetown.
I am interested in history – it is intriguing and filled with tragic and comic lessons. I am also interested in who gets left out of history. As a gay man, married to a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, I am all too aware of the erasure of people, events and ideas from history. It usually happens as a result of peoples’ apathy in the face of an ideological and fanatical revision of history, particularly on religious or avaricious grounds. So, I look at history and my own family’s histories as an opportunity for revision, metaphor and satire.
AS: I am curious to know more about the other narratives in your work. Besides the Americana, where do they come from?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Class and social critique are an undercurrent within my work. I did a series of works exploring disobedience in opposition to systems of power, starting just after the financial collapse in 2008. I was working on Wall Street at the time, designing propaganda for the financial industry. It was hard to keep a straight face as I watched the way some of my clients responded with bluster and denial to the accurate criticisms that would arise out of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.
At that time, I was reading a book titled “On Disobedience” by Erich Fromm and looking at the art works of Max Beckman and James Ensor, whose drawings and paintings are filled with a stinging social critique. I created a series of drawings and sculptures of unheroic monuments – derelict, deposed, and self-contained riot-in-a-box titled “Disobedience.”
AS: Can you tell me more about this project?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: It was prescient, as it was made prior to the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park. This wooden clam-shell box contains miniature blue police barricades, surrounding ceramic forms made by squeezing my fist around a handful of clay. Half of the clay objects hold picket signs aloft, and the other half lay impotently on their side.
It is a dark and playful work, reflecting on some of the tension in our culture on a disarmingly small scale. Because I have often seen myself as the outsider with respect to class, politics, and sexuality, that even when I pass as an insider, I am drawn to the transgressive.
Andrew Cornell Robinson, Disobedience I, Ceramic, Wood, Paper, String, Enamel, Variable installation and dimensions 36 x 48 x 28”, 2011. Courtesy of the Ross Museum of Art, Ohio Wesleyan University
AS: One of the elements that engages me in your work is an outrageous humor, or satire, underscored with soulful darkness. Can you talk about that?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: I seek out the perverse, the absurd, the outrageous, the campy. Beneath all things comic there is something tragic or dark. I have often enjoyed the comedic energy of Robin Williams, but his unnerving portrayal of a psychopathic photo developer and obsessed stalker of a middle-class family in the film “One Hour Photo” was much funnier to me. I suppose my sense of humor finds more satisfaction in the John Waters of the world. There are so few of them, and they make life more interesting.
AS: I would love to know more about your shrine-based work, including the “Wishful Thinking” series – can you shed more light on your source material and thought process?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: “Wishful Thinking” was the title of my last solo exhibition in Philadelphia. The exhibition included a series of ceramic grottos, reliquaries and gilded hot-poured glass in cursive script. Messages like “Be Salted Not Sugared”, “Sin”, and “Wishful Thinking” shimmered on the wall around a series of small shrines and ceramic alcoves covered in glaze and slumped glass.
After the world trade center came crumbling down, make-shift shrines sprouted up across the city with prayers and pleas of “have you seen my daughter, mother, son, husband…” It was heartbreaking. I am fascinated with how people came together in such a tender way in the aftermath of that awful day. “Wishful Thinking” was in part a reflection upon the memory of those makeshift shrines.
Andrew Cornell Robinson, Last Breath, Silkscreen glass enamel on glass, blown glass, ceramic with tin glaze, cork, 32 x 16 x 16 inches, photo courtesy of Arts+Crafts Research Studio
AS: From our conversations it is pretty clear that you are passionate about your role as an art educator. Can you share what was your own school experience?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: In school, it was very difficult for me to learn to read, so I learned mostly by looking at things. As an illiterate kid with dyslexia and a rebellious streak, the opportunities I got through an art education gave me some much-needed direction to a rudderless start in life. I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of the Guggenheim Learning Through Art program. I was a gawky little kid on the free lunch program riding the short bus to school each morning, along with my fellow classmates; a motley crew of misfits, head-cases and the mentally disabled.
Expectations were low. I had a teacher who got a grant to build a dark room and invite an artist from the city to teach us how to shoot, develop and hand color black and white photographs. We learned to read by writing stories about those photographs. It was the first time that reading made sense to me, because it began with making an image.
AS: I would love to hear more about this experience.
Andrew Cornell Robinson: At the conclusion of that year, this group of oddball children was corralled onto a bus to visit the Guggenheim Museum. We walked into the lobby and I looked up to see that wild spiral, and up the ramp we went, past the Joseph Beuys retrospective. I think it was 1979. His work was a revelation – Huge blocks of lard, felt, vitrines, chalkboards covered in cryptic writing and drawings. I really freaked out. It was amazing. Then, at the top of the spiral we were confronted by display of all of the photographs my classmates and I had made. This educational program did a lot to build up our group – kids who had been written off by most of the adults in our lives. I am forever grateful for that experience.
Andrew Cornell Robinson, Be Salted Not Sugared, 2017, Glass, gold leaf, 8.25 x 48 x .5 inches, photo courtesy of Arts+Crafts Research Studio
AS: Can you tell me about an educational art project you are particularly fond of?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: Today, I try to pay that back by teaching art and design, often informed by Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture and John Cage’s intuitive yet systematic approach to experimental composition. One example of a sculpture project I worked on with my students was a potluck meal to be shared on the last day of class. The students designed the menu, place settings, cloth napkins, ceramic tableware, and utensils, and we ate a meal together on a table constructed for the occasion. It was a fantastic project exploring craft and culture through the common ground of food.
AS: What are you working on now?
Andrew Cornell Robinson: A project I am currently developing is tentatively called “the Congregation of Wits.” It is inspired in part by the Pasquino, the oldest of the Talking Statues of Rome, which speak through a multitude of satirical messages – anonymously pasted, taped and tacked to its pedestal by citizens of Rome. Since the fourteenth century this form of protest against religious and civil authorities has persisted, reflecting upon our troubled and wonderful world.
I envision this project as comprised of one thousand drawings and messages, each printed into a modular typographic grid of double-sided rectangles – image on one side, text on the other. The images and words would then be attached over a sculptural substrate. I am still exploring the form that this will take, but I imagine that the images will cover an object, like the many layers of wheat-pasted posters, covering the walls of an urban landscape.