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Dragging rabbits out of hats

Megan Tamati-Quennell on Peter Robinson’s chameleon art practice

<P data-associrn="1377312"></P> <P>Peter Robinson (1966–) has a chameleon approach to art making. His ability to switch and change has been a principal characteristic of his career, a trait he has repeatedly revealed over the past two decades. This perpetual facility to reinvent and transform his work has seen him move from one material to the next, and shift conceptually to explore an array of interests and concerns. It has also enabled him to conceptually revisit and reconsider art works made earlier in his practice and realise them anew. </P> <P><STRONG>Restless creation</STRONG></P> <P>Robinson has created works in the form of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations – an expansive project expressed through a spectacular list of local and international exhibitions. This has ensured his prominence as a significant New Zealand artist and safeguarded his work’s currency over a 25-year period. It has also meant that, when we look at his full practice – its entire scope and reach – there is no continuous line that can be easily tracked or followed. There is instead, as Robinson has described it, a ‘creative restlessness’.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>There’s probably a formal consistency that runs through the work … Certain forms or motifs reoccur, in different guises each time.</EM><SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>This changeability has meant his work circles or doubles back on itself. It drops away, or sometimes stops completely, and begins again quite differently. It moves, changes, transforms. This is an artist ‘with no wish to relax into a mid-career signature style’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Robinson’s recent work has, however, become more measured. In a 2014 interview, he said that there had been a ‘conscious consideration of taking the viewer along an extended narrative’:</P> <P data-associrn="36975"></P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>In the earlier part of my career I did consciously make big leaps between exhibitions as a strategy to keep audiences guessing. I wanted to keep dragging rabbits out of the hat. But now I try harder to either connect to where I was at, or at least extend where I was.</EM><SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P><STRONG>Material excess</STRONG></P> <P>New materials in Robinson’s practice often indicate the unfolding of a fresh phase in his work. Each new direction will culminate in the creation of new works that rebound from previous works or explore uncharted territory. He has been described as an artist who has a ‘fascination with extreme and obsessive materiality’<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> – a quality that can be experienced emphatically in many of his works. </P> <P>Robinson’s works of material excess include many of his early paintings, including some of his ‘Percentage’ paintings (1993). The surfaces of these paintings are viscous with bitumen and tar. Images and numbers have sometimes been formed in the ‘body’ of the paintings’ built surfaces. On top of these, Robinson has applied his oil-stick spirals, numbers, and other motifs. </P> <P data-associrn="1465737"></P> <P data-associrn="1416446"></P> <P>In later paintings, the bitumen and tar surfaces are gone, replaced by the flatter, even surface of unstretched canvas. Works such as <EM>Untitled</EM> (about 1996) and <EM>Strategic plan</EM> (1996) feature Robinson’s hand-drawn graphic imagery, rendered in his trademark oil stick. Irregular spatial arrangements within the paintings create a sculptural dimension. These arrangements are made up of text - words, phrases, and numbers – as well as images and motifs.</P> <P data-associrn="1465739"></P> <P><STRONG>Divine comedies</STRONG></P> <P>Robinson’s ‘gloriously ugly and bug-like’<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> <EM>Fag time</EM> works (2003) are similarly visceral. Described by the artist as both humorous and despairing, the debased sculptural forms owe something to the cartoonish style of American painter Philip Guston. They are the antithesis of the ambition and grandiosity of Robinson’s slick, minimalist, but conceptually dense works in the exhibition <EM>Divine Comedy</EM> (2001). </P> <P><EM>Divine Comedy</EM> was one of two exhibitions commissioned as New Zealand’s inaugural representation at the 49th Venice Biennale, along with fellow Ng&#257;i Tahu artist Jacqueline Fraser’s <EM>A demure portrait of an artist strip searched: with 11 details of bi-polar disorder</EM>. Robinson’s exhibition took its lead from Dante Alighieri’s epic 14th-century poem, the <EM>Divine Comedy</EM>, working with the Italian poet’s definitions of hell, purgatory, and heaven. At the same time, it conflated a myriad of philosophical and scientific ideas about the universe – from big bangs, expanding universes, inflation theory, existentialist philosophies, and ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’, to M&#257;ori concepts of Te Kore (the nothingness) and the supreme being, Io Matua Kore, and Stephen Hawking’s black hole theories. </P> <P data-associrn="1465738"></P> <P><EM>Divine Comedy</EM> was appropriate for New Zealand’s national debut at Venice – the oldest and most established art event in the world. But its lofty aims and sophisticated edge sat uncomfortably with Robinson. The later <EM>Fag time</EM> works were his corrective: ‘The new works were flatulent, visceral bottom-feeders. Their status had been completely lowered and debased.’<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> </P> <P data-associrn="715885"></P> <P><STRONG>Black bile and pink coconut ice</STRONG></P> <P>Audiences again experienced the visceral intensity of Robinson’s ‘stuff’ in his 2005 Dunedin Public Art Gallery show, <EM>The Humours</EM>. Curator Justin Paton described the show as a ‘table-full of pudding fallen on the floor’:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>think of monuments and statues carved from stone … The objects you encounter in <EM>The Humours</EM> occupy less dignified positions. Slapped, poured, and squeezed into being … they inhabit states of slobbering regression, blunt sexual union, and wordless meltdown.</EM><SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P><EM>The Humours</EM> worked with the four fluids of ancient Greek medical theory – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – and their correlating temperaments. According to the theory, blood was associated with optimism, phlegm with calmness, yellow bile with anger, and black bile with melancholy. The medical theory suggested that an imbalance of the body’s humours, an excess or deficiency of any of the four fluids, created ill health and unstable states of mind. </P> <P>Writing of one of the works, <EM>Sweet thing</EM>, Jon Bywater proposed that Robinson had ‘abdicated sculptural control’.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> Lolly-coloured materials that had initially reminded him of toffee, pink coconut ice, and chocolate, later brought to mind phalluses and faecal matter; Robinson had allowed them ‘to behave as they would’. </P> <P data-associrn="1466649"></P> <P><STRONG><EM>Ack</EM></STRONG> </P> <P>Robinson’s other overdoses of excess are his polystyrene works. The first of these, <EM>Ack</EM>, won him the 2008 Walters Prize - this year rebranded as New Zealand’s toughest art prize. For <EM>Ack</EM>, Robinson created a sprawling white polystyrene sculpture with duck heads and blue protrusions, some of which formed legs and beaks. The comedic, blind form pushed through walls, colonising the three Artspace galleries. Robinson carved the polystyrene by hand, transforming the substance usually used to protect art in transit into the art itself.</P> <P><EM>Ack</EM> emerged, Robinson has said, from a recurrent crisis – one of the worst blocks he had experienced, with months of nothing happening in his studio: </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>Eventually I started making maquettes out of clay … I’d been making these abstract forms; then a beak-like thing appeared which I inserted into the maquette, then a leg appeared … So out of desperation came intuition, and coupled with intuition something formal was at play. Hopeless forms, just hopeless, but there was also something kind of exciting about them as well. </EM><SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P data-associrn="1465743"></P> <P>Robinson’s next major polystyrene spectacle, <EM>Snow ball blind time</EM>, was his second installation to fill an entire gallery space, this time the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. Art academic Allan Smith called it ‘a doomed Oruboros fated to keep extending itself without ever being able to catch up with its own tail’.<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> Smith’s statement alludes to the cyclical nature of that particular work; the Oruboros - a serpent pictured in the act of consuming its own tail – is an ancient symbol of infinite connectivity. But its meaning can also be applied more generally to Robinson’s evolution as an artist. It refers to the cyclic nature of his practice but also his acceptance of the inevitability of failure, of never quite getting there: the implausibility of being able to do, know, or control it all.</P> <P><STRONG>A peculiar type of entertainer</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn=""></P> <P data-associrn="1465744"></P> <P data-associrn="1466035"></P> <P>In recent works, Robinson has dialled things back the other way. <EM>Defunct mnemonics</EM> (2012) is an installation of 126 ‘spirit sticks’ positioned on the wall and floor. <SUP><FONT size=2>12</FONT></SUP> The monochromatic striped staffs of <EM>Ritual and formation</EM> (2013) are installed ceremonially along a wall like a palisade, with pointillist-style felt dots scattered on the floor in front. In Robinson’s 2013 Auckland Triennial work, <EM>If you were to work here (The mood in the museum)</EM>, his red, green, yellow, and blue ‘mood sticks’ align with the colour mood system of Hippocratic medicine and were said to be reminiscent of a modernist painting when displayed in blocks of colour on the floor of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o T&#257;maki. These recent sculptures are compressed, reduced, almost minimalist in their aesthetic. They create presence through their focus, refinement, and elegance – their control.</P> <P>Robinson creates work that is propelled by the formal concerns his materials guide him towards, or perhaps demand of him. But his project has moved beyond the pursuit of pure abstraction. Hallmarks of his work include his sardonic humour, barbed witticisms, clever ripostes, and searing critiques. Absurdity, hopelessness, and the inevitability of failure all criss-cross his practice. As Robinson sees it, the artist is a ‘peculiar type of entertainer’: </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P dir=ltr align=left><EM>It’s about offering an intellectual puzzle for the viewer to unpick or unlock. The pleasure is in the process of solving the puzzle - or maybe it’s not even solving the puzzle, it’s playing with it. </EM><SUP><FONT size=2>13</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P><BR><STRONG>Megan Tamati-Quennell</STRONG> is Curator Modern & Contemporary M&#257;ori & Indigenous Art at Te Papa</P> <P><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI>Edward Hanfling, ‘Creating a language: A conversation with Peter Robinson’, <EM>Art New Zealand</EM>, no. 150, Winter 2014, p. 51.</LI> <LI>Ibid.</LI> <LI>Peter Robinson quoted in Dunedin <EM>Public Art Gallery’s Current Visiting Artist</EM>, media release, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2005.</LI> <LI>Edward Hanfling, ‘Creating a language’, p. 55.</LI> <LI>Allan Smith, ‘Desperation, intuition, explanation: A conversation with Peter Robinson’, <EM>Art New Zealand</EM>, no. 130, Autumn 2009, p. 29.</LI> <LI>Justin Paton, ‘Failing better’, in Justin Paton and Peter Robinson (eds), <EM>The Humours: Peter Robinson</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 2005, unpaginated.</LI> <LI>Allan Smith, ‘Desperation, intuition, explanation’, p. 30.</LI> <LI>Justin Paton, ‘Failing better’.</LI> <LI>Jon Bywater, <EM>Peter Robinson</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland, 2005, unpaginated.</LI> <LI>Allan Smith, ‘Desperation, intuition, explanation’, p. 31.</LI> <LI>Allan Smith, ‘Chain reactions and cryogenic catastrophe in Peter Robinson’s frozen apocalypse’ in Rhana Devenport (ed), <EM>Peter Robinson: Snow Ball Blind Time</EM>, Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 2010, p. 27.</LI><LI>Peter McLeavey in conversation with Megan Tamati-Quennell, 2013.</LI> <LI>Edward Hanfling, ‘Creating a language’, p. 55.</LI></FONT></OL>

Peter Robinson, Defunct Mnemonics, 2012, wood, felt,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on


Peter Robinson, Painting 1993, 1993, tar, wax and oil on canvas,
Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on

Peter Robinson, &lt;EM&gt;Untitled&lt;/EM&gt;, about 1996, acrylic on canvas, 450 x 3785 mm. Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2003, C2003/1/48

Peter Robinson, Untitled, about 1996, acrylic on canvas, 450 x 3785 mm. Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2003, C2003/1/48


Peter Robinson, Strategic Plan, 1996, oil stick and synthetic polymer paint on unstretched linen,
Purchased 2014.
Full object info is available on

Peter Robinson, &lt;EM&gt;Fag time&lt;/EM&gt;, 2003

Peter Robinson, Fag time, 2003

Peter Robinson, &lt;EM&gt;Divine Comedy&lt;/EM&gt;, exhibition, 2001

Peter Robinson, Divine Comedy, exhibition, 2001


Peter Robinson, Sweet thing, 2005, polyurethane, pigment, fimo.,
Purchased 2006.
Full object info is available on

Peter Robinson, &lt;EM&gt;Ack&lt;/EM&gt;, 2006

Peter Robinson, Ack, 2006 ,
Photograph by Alex North

Peter Robinson, &lt;EM&gt;Snow ball blind time&lt;/EM&gt;, 2008

Peter Robinson, Snow ball blind time, 2008

Peter Robinson, &lt;EM&gt;Ritual and formation&lt;/EM&gt;, 2013, wool felt, aluminium rods, 2600 x 9750 x 500 mm. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and Chartwell Gift Collection, purchased 2013, 2013/23

Peter Robinson, Ritual and formation, 2013, wool felt, aluminium rods, 2600 x 9750 x 500 mm. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and Chartwell Gift Collection, purchased 2013, 2013/23