Throughout his storied career, Walter Robinson has been classified under different categories yet contained by none of them. A partial list includes: 1980s-era Pictures Generation painter (represented by Metro Pictures alongside Robert Longo and Louise Lawler and, prior to that, exhibiting with the legendary Colab collective), art critic (he was an editor on A.i.A.‘s staff from 1978 to 2009), and founding editor-in-chief (from 1996 to 2012) of Artnet Magazine, a pioneer of online art reporting. At Lynch Tham we saw Robinson in full form as a painter, demonstrating his ability to fully invest himself in his subject matter while keeping a light touch on the wheel. Viewing these bright and breezy renderings of fashion catalogue advertisements (all but three from 2014), we see just how in thrall we are to a culture that values us solely for our compulsion to consume.
Cleanly arranged on the walls were 12 works in acrylic on canvas, linen or paper in sizes ranging from 9 by 12 inches to 6 feet high. All contained imagery appropriated from Lands’ End and Target circulars, mostly for the winter and summer seasons, featuring models in their teens and 20s cavorting in cotton and woolen clothing on simple, or largely unmodulated, backgrounds. (Think of the white paper backdrops that professional photographers typically employ.) Robinson’s approach to figure rendering is appealing and unfussy, as he reduces large areas of light and dark to confident strokes of color. Lands’ End Friends and Family depicts five adults as a mass of roiling texture and bright color. Both revealed and obscured in an impossibly chummy post-ski portrait, the figures are slathered in the “easy separates” of nubby, woolen fingerless gloves, winter sweatshirts and parkas, and knit caps. One figure is almost unrecognizable as a female, smothered under the arms and shoulders of her smiling, overly protective companions. Long Sleeve Plaid is the straight-on view of a plaid shirt folded neatly, as if ready to be packed into a suitcase. The shirt becomes a marvelous painterly opportunity, its pleasing pattern a lush crisscrossing abstraction of linear daubs of white overlapping loose geometries of red, yellow, blue and green. Robinson’s enjoyment of paint is apparent everywhere, making up for how downright disturbing it is to look for so long into such anodyne faces and things. Who doesn’t like plaid? And who doesn’t like to be fooled?
While I prefer Robinson’s still lifes (the shirt; a single pair of galoshes), he wreaks his best havoc in the scenes with figures, perfectly capturing in his economical brushstrokes the specious mix of false shyness and sexy innocence that is the semaphore code of middlebrow model shoots: the uneasy shifting of weight to one side; the raised hand that barely covers the repressed giggle; the one bare, tanned knee turned demurely in toward the other. Just what private joke do models, paid to display themselves, always seem to be giggling about, anyway? Most likely, it is one manufactured for our gaze, the better to convince us that in purchasing these products, we, too, will share the mood. Robinson reveals such logical contradictions with no pretense, no secrets.