I enjoy aesthetic polytheism, and I am suspicious of most curatorial interpretations. Someone’s always got an axe to grind regardless of what was in the artists’ mind. I never really know what to say when asked What’s your art about?. I usually want to talk about how I made it, because I really like the making; but that never seems to satisfy, in fact it appears to demystify, and the asker walks away with an impression that I am a mere tinkering intuitive. Kind of an idiot child. I am afraid to tell them what I think it might be about, I rarely begin something with any sense of certainty of meaning, that might emerge later, sometimes years later, in the rearview mirror meaning might crystalize. I’m afraid to tell them that I think I am making magic, because that's pretty uncool these days. I might talk about some ideas about my lived experiences, about being gay, growing up poor and graduating to middle class with lots of debt and an unfulfilled sense of entitlement, or surviving the 1980s AIDS crisis through a drunken blur; but no matter how intrigued the asker may appear, I suspect that they could care less what I lived through. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when they get that eyes-glazed-over look, because my ideas about what I think I am doing when I make a painting, or a sculpture, or whatever, sometimes don’t translate.
I think my best work is often confounding to myself, and to others; meaning slips through fingers. Form and craft are important to me, and meaning, if it holds, can be really cool too, but I’m really interested in beauty. A Lot of people seem to be afraid of that. Afraid of the destabilizing nature of art that uses beauty to celebrate marginality. On the reactionary right, they default to feeling threatened; suspicious of images, and the ideas within them that may undermine their sense of their position in the world. It is probably why the Taliban immediately white washed all the delightful community murals in Kabul, or why some uptight morman took a paint roller to white out all the nipples and groins on the billboard advertising the Chippendale Dancers, just outside Salt Lake City. Perhaps it is an extension of the protestant iconoclasm that lingers within western culture, particularly in the United States. On the left, there is an equally hysterical suspicion of beauty, probably because they correctly see beauty as a threat to their authority as interpreters of meaning.
I sometimes stumble around the halls of academia, and there I have noticed many professorial types who are afraid of beauty. I notice it by their silence on the subject, or their inordinate disdain for craft and form and a perverted need to force interpretations of everything they see, laying on some heavy socio-political readings, like repressed horny monks operating from the neck up within a puritanical culture of their own making. I imagine that these silences hiding disdain are an indication that they know that they can’t compete with the sublime. That art is a force that destabilizes certainties and threatens to change the world around us, perhaps by changing the ideas within us.
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.
Interview with Andrew Robinson
written by Beatrice Helman Issue 8 was curated by Shannon Goff and Roxanne Jackson.
"I understand the draw of the sentimental, the nostalgic. I see it in my grandmother’s Stangl plate that held my buttered toast for breakfast. I love the sense of touch and connection to the maker. Looking at or if you are lucky enough to hold a polychrome pot by Nampeyo, and feel the pinched clay on the interior of one of her seed jars, and realize that it was her hands that made that nearly one hundred years ago."
Today on Maake we talk with Andrew Robinson @acrstudio about his work, how the introduction of clay changed his life, revising stories from his family history, the role of drawing in this practice, and so much more.
Hi Andrew! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Let’s start off with the basics —where did you grow up and does that experience appear in your work, whether consciously or subconsciously?
I was born in Camden, New Jersey, a small industrial town neighboring Philadelphia. I grew up with my time split between the suburbs of New York City and Sergeantsville a small farming community where my grandmother raised soy and kept an apple orchard. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in New Jersey there was a lot of time to run wild, especially in the rural parts of Hunterdon County where my siblings and I spent some of our free time with our father after my parents’ divorce. It seemed like a vacation, to run amok through corn fields and woods, learning to swim in creeks and canals, even when our days were filled with chores, being outside felt good. Making is something that my family valued. There was an interest in tinkering and DIY. My mother was an abstract painter who had studied under Hans Hoffman and Tony Smith. My dad was a writer and teacher for a time. I was surrounded by art and books. So, a life in the creative arts seemed normal to me. I suppose if anything I bring an intuitive impulse to making and a connection to the memory of lived experiences from the places I come from and carry that with me where ever I go.
You mentioned having loved Rock and Roll growing up and I was wondering if you could identify the aspects that attracted you, and where it led you? It seems like an entryway into the world of music, art, and intense creation.
As a teenager I spent time hanging out with garage bands and basement jam sessions listening to friends playing, and mixing tapes and collecting albums at the local record shop. I played bass and sang, thinking I could be Lou Reed or David Bowie someday but alas I was more interested in listening to music while I made pots. My tastes are pretty eclectic, so I found myself attracted to everyone from Led Zeppelin to Gang of Four to the No Wave and Punk scenes in the east village of New York City. There is something wonderful and radical about rock-n-roll. It is iconoclastic by nature, and that appeals to me.
What was your first interaction with clay?
I was not a particularly good student. Dyslexia was a perplexing stumbling block for me early in my life, and I didn’t talk so much as a little kid so the teachers didn’t know quite what to do with me. My third-grade teacher handed me a block of clay and put me in a corner while the rest of the class did a reading lesson. I’m pretty sure she thought I was retarded. Putting my hands in clay at that moment seemed so intuitive to me. I modeled some figures and I guess the teachers thought it was pretty good. That fall I was transferred into a learning through the arts program funded by the Guggenheim Museum. I had to endure a ride on the short-bus every morning with a group of misfit children. But each day we had art, and were exposed to artists who would come out from the city to work with us. I started developing my own black and white photographs then with the help of a visiting photographer who had built a dark room in our classroom. Around that time, I met Grace, a local potter and a member of my church. She took me under her wing. So, after school most days I was working in her pottery mixing glazes, mopping floors, wedging clay and learning how to throw pots on a Soldner kick wheel. I worked with her for eight years to the age of eighteen before I went off to study ceramics and sculpture.
Were you always a kid who liked to make stuff, or did that develop as you got older?
Working with my hands comes easily to me. There is always more to learn, I stay curious and new materials and tools are usually greeted as a happy challenge. At the age of ten I built my first Raku kiln. It was pretty primitive, but I learned how to build the fire-brickwork to distribute the flames and heat around the kiln interior. I am fascinated to uncover how things work, or how to coax them into working better. I feel lucky to have grown up at a time when shop-class was still a thing in American public schools.
How do you work through moments where you feel out of sync with your work or are unsure about where to go next?
Oh, I do hate those moments of doubt when faced with the proverbial blank canvas. I am generally a restless person, so sitting still in the neurotic arm chair in my studio usually doesn’t last too long. I find that I have to mop the floor or wedge the clay or walk the dog. When I am doing something, it usually leads to something. A walk in the woods is always a good idea.
Can you talk about how you entered the world of ceramics, and the pros and cons of a formal education versus the knowledge you gained as an apprentice?
In my apprenticeship, I learned about getting things done on a task list. I learned about trial and error. I worked for a production potter so making useful things was the goal and I learned a great deal from that experience, including the value of working through a problem with my hands. After my apprenticeship I thought I would join the Navy and become a welder. That seemed like a good option for me as my grades were not spectacular, and the lingering dyslexia and flirtations with adolescent delinquency continued to slow my progress, so my options for college seemed dim. As fate would have it, my portfolio got me into art school, where I could also learn to weld. It seemed like a better option for me than the Navy at the time. Besides I don’t do well with authority figures. That said, I found my formal education in a ceramics program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland to be invaluable. I thrived in art school surrounded by teachers and peers who seemed to love what they were doing and brought an infectious enthusiasm to the studio each day. I really have no regrets about my years studying ceramics and sculpture. Of course, back then an education was financially more accessible for those without means. I got some Pell grants and pursued my MFA from the School of Visual Arts which was a very different experience from studying for my undergraduate degree. The art world of New York City was a different place entirely, it seemed terrifically competitive and exhausting at times. I almost dropped out after my first semester. I had found that while my craft education had prepared me well to make pretty much anything; I was not as prepared for discussions about post-modernism art theories, which were all the rage back then. I felt out of my depth with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and discussions about semiotics. The English translations of their writing felt ham-fisted to me. It is sort of ironic that I ended up on the board of the Foucault Society years later.
Thankfully I met Tommy Lanigan Schmidt a spry and savvy artist and professor who seemed to read between the lines of my work. He turned me on to queer artists like Susan Sontag, Jack Smith, Robert Gober, Leigh Bowery and transgressive “camp” explorations of art and politics by folks like Annie Sprinkle, Gran Fury and General Idea. Graduate school gave me an opportunity to explore my own ideas through my work, queer ideas that I had been hesitant to embrace. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and the culture wars in the United States. So, people were taking sides and I suppose it was inevitable that I would want to know where I stand in my life and work as an artist. I learned to defend myself in a critique and hold my own. That was valuable then and now.
That said, if I were to do it over again, I might have held out for state school to avoid the debt that I incurred. It took me nearly ten years to pay off the student loans. Today that is a drop in the bucket. I don’t know how students do it today.
Who are some of the people who were formative in the way that you think about ceramics and creating in general?
My influences are fairly eclectic, and range from Lucie Rie and Grayson Perry to Kiki Smith, and Philip Guston. All of the people who I am drawn to seem to have a haptic sense of their material and perhaps a peculiar sense of a story embedded in their work. I have to credit my teachers, especially the late Doug Baldwin, who brought a sense of humor to his work as a maker and educator. He made these wonderful little clay characters, which inhabited a world that came to life in his Claymation films and sculptural installations. He made his work with a sense of joy and humility. I learned allot from his example. I moved to New York City in 1992 and I was fortunate to walk into the Fawbush gallery in Soho where Kiki Smith’s seminal figurative sculptures first crawled, hung and splayed across the space. Her work was and continues to be a revelation to me. Her embrace of the narrative and her sense of material and touch is so compelling and continues to teach me something about making credible work that might resonate with another. But perhaps the first and most profound impression made upon me was in 1979, when on a school trip I walked into the Guggenheim Museum for the first time to see the Joseph Beuys retrospective. There was an intensity to the work, the sheer mass of blocks of lard, and felt covered everyday objects, scattered chalkboards with scrawled writing over their surfaces. It was utter chaos and it was fabulous! This exhibition was astonishing to me and I think I can fairly say it led me to think for the first time that art was a possibility for me.
Can you talk about the physical process of working with clay—are there motions you return to over and over, do you find that the physical action influences your mental state or vice versa?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Working with clay for me is a whole-body experience. It begins when I prepare my clay. I position myself into a pugilist stance with one leg in front of the other, as I anchor of my feet, wedging, wrestling and forming the clay into a spiral mass, pressing the air out and getting a feel for the moisture in the mud. Is it too wet or too dry? Wedging is a great place for me to get in the zone. I have to be present in my body and restful in my mind to do the job well. It is a simple task in the scheme of things, but it is the beginning, and beginnings are important, they set the tone for what may come.
I feel like clay is such a special medium because it usually does hold huge emotional significance whether it be a grandmother’s bowl or a friend’s mug, etc. and I think I’m kind of interested in these relationships. Do you see that this level of the sentimental comes up in your work or process?
I understand the draw of the sentimental, the nostalgic. I see it in my grandmother’s Stangl plate that held my buttered toast for breakfast. I love the sense of touch and connection to the maker. Looking at or if you are lucky enough to hold a polychrome pot by Nampeyo, and feel the pinched clay on the interior of one of her seed jars, and realize that it was her hands that made that nearly one hundred years ago. To be touching what she touched, that is special. I suppose it is unavoidable given the role that this material has had in human history that it might have such an emotive quality. It seems ever present, this dirt from which we come. So yes, I do see a sense of nostalgia that I am keenly aware of in the ways that I think about my work in clay. But I also try to avoid the fetishization of clay that seems to be a circular trap particular to craft and material based making that places ceramists into a particular kind of ghetto, separate from art or design, distinctions that serve commercial interests than cultural ones.
I’m really fascinated by the very act of working with one’s hands, it’s so personal.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your own hands?
What a great and peculiar question. My hands are long and wide, with broad spade like palms. I am tall, and my hands are an extension of that largess. I can always tell when I am not throwing pots because my calluses start to appear from working with all the other things I make and do. Their absence remind me to throw more pots.
Do you find that clay has a connection to the past, and are you conscious of it in your work? How has your own history come to life in your work?
I often begin with a story, a historical reference, a fiction that allows me to develop an idea through the material. These fictions might be allegorical in some way, or they might be autobiographical.
I examine my own life, memory and other histories in search of quirks and queer characters, events and places as a way to start a new project. Often the “back story” behind my work is not entirely apparent to the viewer, but the forms that emerge are intuitive responses to these stories. For example, I am currently creating a series of ceramic figures and objects that are about people who I greatly admire like the poets Federico García Lorca and Audre Lorde, among others, These figures of courageous and queer characters I admire are formed with slabs, pulled across a wood table like pizza dough, and then composed into a modeled composition. In a literal sense the clay holds the memory of its form, and metaphorically the form attempts to allude to a memory, a fragment, a phrase, a gesture and abstraction of an idea.
What is your work process like, from inception to execution? How long does a project usually take from start to finish? Has the way you approach a new project evolved over time?
I work in two ways typically. Sometimes I work intuitively, on the fly, responding to an idea, a turn of phrase and transform that into a form, often in a collage like approach to piecing fragments and slabs of clay, pulled, pressed and slumped into a form, or cast forms slipped and stuck into place. These types of works often lead me through a visual problem and help me to develop a new vocabulary. It is a refreshing release from the other way that I work, which is much slower and will unfold over the course of years, typically two or three years in most cases. This type of project might begin with intensive drawing, a daily practice that I have employed in my studio since I was a student. These observational and conceptual drawings are compiled along with readings and material and field research. For example, I might fix my attention on some person, place or thing and then research deeply into its history as a way to generate images and forms. Currently I have been working on a series of images and ceramic sculptures based on research about the “Talking Statues” of Rome, a peculiar gathering place for Romans since the fifteenth century; who have used the statue called Pasquino to wheat paste their political complaints and gossip upon. It was and continues to be a focal point for the populace to vocalize and visualize their dissatisfactions with the powers that be. It has led me to create one thousand drawings, as a precursor to a series of prints and sculptures that invariably will lead to a series of larger ceramic sculptures with wheat pasted images covering parts of the surface. This type of project, it is slow, and during the process there are twists and turns that reveal new avenues to explore. And, yes this process evolves over time and perhaps if you ask me this question again in the future I will be working in a different way. But for now, this seems to be what works for me.
Can you describe your personal ceramic practice? What are some of the benefits or drawbacks of your chosen material?
I am a bit of a pack rat, and I love tools, and materials. I guess my personal ceramic practice is one in which I am always game for trying a new tool, technique or way of making. I think ceramists have this impulse for being tool makers and problem solvers. That is something I greatly enjoy. But it also can easily send me down a rabbit hole chasing a particular glaze effect, or what have you. I suppose it is this curiosity about the materials I work with that can give me an advantage and it also can get me into trouble. A few years ago, I was down in Haiti helping to build a community ceramics studio in Port-au-Prince. A local potter had the most wonderful clay, a yellow ochre colored earthenware she had dug out of a river bed in the country side. I was curious to see how the ochre would fire with a glaze I was working with and she offered some clay for me to take back to Brooklyn. Little did I know that my curiosity would alarm the airport security who hauled me out onto the tarmac at the airport upon my departure. They thought I had plastic explosives! After having to unpack my bag, and dig my hands into the clay, I explained in my rather feeble French that I was a ceramist working with Haitian potters and it was local clay I was going to test, they rolled their eyes and said something about ridiculous Americans and told me to get back on the airplane. That ochre colored clay fired to the most beautiful deep walnut brown. I wish I had more of it!
What are some of the challenges that working in ceramics presents, or to put it differently, what are some of the limitations of the form and/or idea of ceramics?
I think there are several factors that might be viewed as limitations to ceramics in form and concept. One of them is the sheer knowledge required to make the material do what I intended it to do. Pesky gravity, and chemistry gets in the way all the time. The other challenge is the weird historical burden of this material. Clay has a comforting nostalgia and simultaneously an intellectually claustrophobic legacy of its craft. It’s a perception thing, “craft”. It is reassuring to be “in” the tribe of makers who share and covet craft knowledge, and it is also a bit of a hindrance in that there is a suspicion that “craft” is not really credible in the capital A art world, especially in the United States where we have a fetishization of youth, inexperience and amateurism which for whatever reason is equated with being innovative and authentic. I think that is changing as ceramic materials are more readily accepted and used by artists of every stripe but there is an unfortunate mischaracterization that the crafts are simply the “hands” and artists or designers are the big ideas people. Hence the unfortunate rise in terms like “design thinking” and the proliferation of art programs that don’t teach students how to make things.
Who or what are some of your larger influences?
As I mentioned, my tastes are rather eclectic and range from graphic design, rock-n-roll, and a broad spectrum of ceramics, sculpture and painting. I suppose one artist who looms large in my mind is Robert Rauschenberg whose approach to his combines (assemblage like constructions), opened my eyes to the way that I might incorporate multiple media across all of my work. And his performance collaborations led me to look at music, theater and dance all of which influence the forms and rhythms I am drawn to. That segue into performance led me to look at Mike Kelley’s videos and sculpture, the punk- ballet choreography of Michael Clarke, the production design and theatrical direction of Robert Wilson, and the material drama of Kiki Smith’s sculpture. All of these are influences that I might point to in my work.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I wake up and have coffee with my husband Siggy. Scrubbed and caffeinated, I take our dog Remy for a walk and if I am not teaching, we continue our walk to my studio which is just down the road in an old knitting factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Most days I can be found there. The studio routine is based on whatever I am working on at that moment. But I will typically prepare my clay while a fresh pot of coffee is brewing and Remy is getting comfortable on his bed next to my work table. I wedge and he snores. With a second cup of coffee, I settle into a bit of writing, sometimes just a task list and most days a bit of random thoughts on a page to clear the cob webs and clarify some ideas I am working through. Then I spend some time drawing. At the moment I am working through a series of one thousand small tin glazed ceramic sculptures so each day will invariably transition into working on what is unfolding before me. I’ll break for lunch around one o’clock if I remember to eat. Usually Remy will remind me and we go out for a walk and grab a bite to eat and then back into the studio until the sun sets then home for dinner.
Do you find yourself interacting with social media, and do you find that your work has a relationship to it? How does something so physical interact with something so virtual? Do you see the possibility for any relationship between the two?
I have mixed feelings about social media. I like the ability to make connections to other makers online. I do use it to share work in progress, or a pastiche of things I am looking at, or listening to. But I find the whole thing to be a terrific distraction when I am working in the studio. I try to turn my phone off when I am working, unless I am expecting someone.
Your question, how something so physical interacts with something so virtual is an excellent one to consider. I have started to create short videos that move around a work in progress or show details that can’t be seen in a still shot, and invariably I will incorporate a snippet of recorded sound, it might be a bit of music, or more likely a recording of spoken word, a poem, a conversation. I like the fragmentary nature of these videos and it provides another way into my work. I see these strange digital moments as extensions of my work. They are elusive and ephemeral and let others see behind the curtain (sort of).
Do you find that your physical surroundings, or emotional surroundings, influence your work? You seem to have worked in a variety of stunning but very different locations!
Yes, place is a big part of how I work and what I invariably am looking at. I try to travel as much as I can. And in my travels, I am looking for histories, stories, and visual cues that might spark something new to introduce into my visual vocabulary. I think places resonate with an emotional history that ask us to pay attention to them. I spent some time visiting the Alhambra, a palace located in Granada, Andalusia, Spain. The whole complex and the surrounding city are a confluence of cultures intermingling and conflicting and informed much of what I was drawing, reading and looking at. It led me to read and appreciate the writing of Federico García Lorca and his writing in turn led me to create a series of sculptures exploring a legacy of queer artists who disappear amidst the whitewash of heteronormative historical memory.
The word ‘ceramics’ has such a wide reach and so many definitions. Can you talk about what defines ceramics, to you personally?
The term ceramics triggers all sorts of associations. I suppose for me there is a comfort that I find in the term, because I spent the better part of my youth working in a pottery and surrounded by craftspeople who took me under their wing and taught me their craft. The term implies a sense of community.
Ceramics also offers a way of looking through material, across cultures to find the connections that we share. I am fascinated by the history of ceramics, because it traces the history of humanity in such interesting ways. For example, consider the Stangl pottery that my grandmother fed her family with at each meal. The glaze on that pottery was based on majolica glazes used by Italian ceramists in the 15th century. The Italian ceramists very likely were influenced by tin-glazed ceramics being traded across the Mediterranean originating from Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. Like now, it is plausible that ceramists across the ages shared recipes, ideas and methods. It would explain why the same glazes and methods show up across the ages and cultures around the globe. These glazes were most likely adopted and adapted by artisans traveling with the Islamic caliphate that spread across north Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. Historians can trace these glazes through Egypt, Syria, and into Persia. Some theories speculate that this type of white glaze with over glaze decorations may have been an aesthetic and commercial response by Persian ceramists in about 800 ACE who were competing with the influx of blue and white Chinese porcelain. All this history connected through a simple painted plate made in mid-twentieth century New Jersey. Ceramics…
You wrote that you are “concerned with representations of the queer and peculiar.” Could you expand upon that?
I remember I was in an art history class, and an image of Donatello’s David appeared on the screen in the dark lecture hall. The sculpture shows a young nude David, holding a sword, wearing a floral hat and straddling the decapitated head of the Philistine Goliath. The work is really spectacular, a classic work of Renaissance sculpture. The professor looking up from his yellow note pad gave us the run down on the work, and added with a bit of contempt in his voice, that the contrapposto position of the body was revelatory of form “…as well as Donatello’s homosexuality. I mean look at those hips. Tsk.” He said it with such bile in his voice, and I thought to myself, fuck you. Of course, there was no mention of the Donatello’s sexuality in the history book we were asked to read. And the only mention of it was from the thin lips of someone who seemed utterly disgusted by it. I am a gay man living in the United States of America. I grew up and came out at the height of the AIDS epidemic. I have seen how easily it is to be vilified and have your rights taken away. I am seeing the potential for that to happen right now in this country. I am painfully aware of some people’s desire to erase my presence and the record of any contributions to culture, history, science, and civic life by those who are, like me, queer. My concern for representations of the queer and peculiar come out of my lived experiences as a gay man and my desire to make visible the lives of queer people. I’d like to see those histories revised to make visible, the men, and women and trans-people who have helped to make this world too.
You also said that you “respond to materials intuitively and embrace an interdisciplinary approach to art making with a particular interest in bridging art, design and craft as a vehicle for narrative.” I found this fascinating and seemed almost like the work of a historian or architect, using the means to achieve the goal. Could you talk a little bit about using different disciplines in your work and the way that they relate to each other? Would it be fair to say that you’re multi-disciplinary?
Yes, it is fair to say that I am a multi-disciplinary artist. My formative training in ceramics set the stage for me to explore collaborations with other makers across disciplines. Working in craft communities seems to encourage that sort of thing. I am fascinated by history and imagining revisionist histories, so it is understandable that you would see traces of that in some of my projects.
I worked for a time as a “user experience” designer and creative director in digital branding and advertising. It was a way to pay off my student loans and buy my first wheel and kiln. This foray into the world of commercial design opened up a new way of thinking about working. The work, like that of a craft community, is team oriented, and it led me to appreciate the contributions of other disciplines to the development of a creative endeavor. As my time in that world concluded (I was burning out on seventy-hour work weeks), I was working on a new project in my studio and I thought I might employ a design method as a new way for me to generate ideas and forms for my art work. So, I developed a series of “design personae.” This tool is essentially an imaginary character with defined needs and desires. They might even have a back story. Personae are typically used by industrial designers to assist them in the design of a product that meets the personae needs. I thought it would be interesting to create a persona based on a queer revolutionary and then make art and artifacts for that persona. The character descriptions were shared with a group of invited collaborators, Tony a bespoke tailor from Panama; Michael Chiabaudo a fashion photographer from Hollywood; Matt Lawrence a DJ in New York; Alva Cal y Mayor, a curator from Mexico; and Sigfrido Holguin, a fashion designer from the Dominican Republic. Working with each of these people we created garments, and ceramics, sculpture, images, and musical mixes, each of them specific to the needs of two imagined queer revolutionaries. The curator then worked with me to create a fake historical society that housed all of the art works each of which were presented as artifacts having some relationship to a queer American revolutionary named Fred and a Dominican guerrilla fighter named Isabella. This way of working opened up a new approach for me that continues to this day.
What is your relationship to memory, and in what way do you examine it in your work? You said that you find yourself “creating disobedient objects including prints and ceramics that help me to understand historical memory and to find a place in it for voices that might otherwise be silenced,” which is such a beautiful way to think about it.
Memory is a slippery thing. It depends upon who is doing the remembering and who is remembered. I have come to look at many of my sculptures as artifacts or props that when seen in the aggregate connect to reveal fragments of a story. My relationship to memory in that sense is conveyed through these fragments. I’d like to think that each of the images and objects that I make might stand on their own but when pieced together they may act as a rebus and reveal a secret.
Memory leads me to history, which it appears you have a huge interest in and work with a lot, but history also leads me to think about erasure, and I was wondering how you address that in your work? You mentioned that “growing up in a culture where to be gay is anathema, I was hungry for reflections of people like myself. So, I make queer little objects, and collections of artifacts; leaving traces of lives that might break through the silence of history and cultural erasure.” Could you talk about that a little bit more?
When my mother sold her home, she gave out some family heirlooms. I was given a drawing of a woman, a distant relative named Cousin Sadie. She was a spinster who lived alone on a small farmstead at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in rural New Jersey. She was my grandfather’s distant cousin and some of my relatives had met her when they were children. According to the family, she pumped her own water from a well, chopped her own wood for her stove, and hunted and raised food to feed herself. A real family legend of self-reliance with a Protestant work ethic that any WASP would be proud of. I planned to reframe the drawing as the old one was cracked on the corner. When I pulled the pencil drawing out of the frame, I noticed on the back a small inscription, “with love Moira.” When I asked relatives who might remember, if they knew who Moira was, I was told that she was probably the lady that lived with Sadie. I asked if they were lesbian lovers. That line of inquiry was met with silence and then stone-faced denial. The quick end to the conversation made me wonder; would my husband and I make it past a generation or two in my own family tree? It seemed doubtful given the historical precedence. So, I set out to create a series of stories and traces of queer ancestors, reimagining the histories of spinsters and bachelors as queer radicals. If I didn’t see myself reflected in my own family’s story, then how might I expect to see it reflected in the larger culture. The exploration of personae, and the creation of revisionist histories opened up a new way for me to consider the content of my work and to see history as malleable and memory as a medium to play with.
I also wanted to touch on the idea of performance and the relationship between complex performance or a production incorporating a wide spectrum of emotion, and your own work and process—am I off base to think there might be some sort of influence or relationship or even opinion there?
No, you’re not really off base. I suppose I think about my work in theatrical ways. I don’t see myself as a performer, in spite of having created sculptural objects as if they are props and staging some of my exhibitions as if there are actors waiting in the wings, but that sort of thing is part of the fun of the work for me. Creating this strange sense of anticipation for an action; presenting my ceramics along with hand sewn garments as if they were the property of characters who have just left the room and the objects as artifacts are left there as evidence of some moment in time. If anything, theatricality offers a sculptural way of thinking about living space. Sound, specifically spoken and sung words are a new element that has emerged in a project I did a few years ago that explored the life and death of Jean Paul Marat and his assassin Charlotte Corday. It was, like previous projects, a multi-disciplinary body of work that included ceramics, prints, garments, photography and a musical composition and collaboration with the jazz composer Brett Sroka. In it I was dressed in a corset and hand sewn gown, I held a ceramic dagger and sang the love song Bésame Mucho. While there was performance, the actual exhibition included all the artifacts and a recording of the song remixed into a Tibetan like chant. It created an eerie sort of space, laden with a bit of camp humor, and pollical commentary. The exhibition took place prior to the 2016 presidential election. Thinking back on it now, the exhibition seems prescient for its foreshadowing of political turmoil.
You also clearly draw quite a bit—what role does drawing play in your creative process and what role does it fulfill personally?
I draw every day. A little something here or there. I keep sketchbooks, and I carry one with me where ever I go. It’s a habit that has served me well. You never know when something interesting may appear in your line of vision. When I got out of graduate school I turned that daily practice into a game, and decided I would draw on the NYC subway in a sketchbook every time I rode the train. I would only use black felt tip pens, no pencils, and no erasing. I had to live with the marks as they came down on the page. And I would only draw people or things that were in front of me. No judgments, just draw. I would only draw a subject during the time it took me to ride between a set number of stations (usually 2-3 stops, because you never knew when the subject would get up and walk away). Doing this for a number of years forced me to draw in a different way. It helped me to see and value my hand, and the way I render as something that has its own character. I still draw every day. The past year and a half, I have been working on a project that has mined thirty years of sketchbooks and combined one thousand drawings into a series of silkscreen prints. I am currently exploring line drawing over the surfaces of one thousand majolica glazed ceramic sculptures. The line quality over tin-glazed ceramic feels different than ink of course, it is closer to working with gouache paints, which are flat and have the potential for a graphic line or stippled effect. Unlike traditional glazes, the majolica over glazes are stiff and don’t melt or run as much in the kiln.
You mentioned fictional characters, and I was hoping you could elaborate on one and their presence in your work or process.
The characters I work with are usually done in pairs, often as a way to explore contrast and opposition. Currently I am working with two new characters exploring ideological and political opposites: Felix (a Fascist) and Abraham (an Anarcho-Syndicalist). The two characters allow me to get out of my own skin and look at perhaps the socio-political turmoil in our culture these days. The characters might play a big roll or they may just be in the background, like a sort of device used along the way to making things. As the project unfolds the characters will take their places. At the moment they are both just a series of photographs and garments and a collection of drawings. The individual characters are literally a means to an end for me. Like a design persona, they allow me to anticipate the needs of that character, their desires, the forms that these things might take and as a result a collection of images and sculptural artifacts emerge as their story unfolds.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
There is an upcoming exhibition of prints and drawings at the Equity Gallery opening Thursday, March 21, 2019 from 6 – 8pm, and the show continues to April 13. 245 Broome St., NY NY 10002 www.nyartistsequity.org
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.