Tamera Lenz Muente, contributing visual arts writer for CityBeat, caught up with Cincinnati artist Emil Robinson during his six-month stay in London. He’s there with his fiancée, Catherine Richards, a UC architecture graduate student who received a co-op at a high-profile exhibition design firm. Muente ran a condensed version of her interview in this week's CityBeat, but here’s the entire conversation, which took place via online chat, with Robinson typing from an internet café in Camden, one of London’s hippest neighborhoods. He had just finished a morning of marketing his work to galleries.
Tamera Lenz Muente: Hey, Emil. How did your morning at the galleries go?
Emil Robinson: It is great that they are open on Mondays here. I went to a gallery in Mayfair to get advice from a curator there. It is hard sorting through all the possibilities here. I am bringing little paintings around in a briefcase with resumes and CDs of recent work. I guess I am a door-to-door salesman
TLM: Ha! But, it's nice your work is small enough to take around with you. Reminds me of Duchamp’s “Museum in a Valise,” his traveling exhibition of miniatures of his work.
ER: That Duchamp was a cagey guy. There has been a wonderful show at Tate Modern that has a few of his things.
TLM: Yes, London is full of amazing art — you can walk into the National Gallery and see Van Eyck and Rubens’ masterpieces, then into a contemporary space and see cutting edge British conceptual art. Can you tell me about one art experience that has deeply affected you while you’ve been in London?
ER: Hit me with something else. I have to take a minute to think about that.
TLM: No problem. That's a tough question. We’ll come back to it. Was London on your radar before Catherine got the co-op there, or was it an opportunity you hadn’t considered before?
ER: I have always been impressed with certain things about art in London. London has at once some of the most critical discussion on art currently, and at the same time some of the most overblown commercially hip bullshit. For example, there is a wonderful engagement with painting here as a medium of constant reinvention, and the Brits have a history of creating understated yet beautifully made work. Yet when I get on the subway I am handed the London Lite newspaper that covers Britney Spears and the recent million-dollar price tag on the street artist Banksy.
TLM: Yes, I remember those incredibly sensational tabloids. I assume that just being in that different environment — public transportation, etcetera — has affected you in some way. Is there a particular “non-art” experience you can think of that has inspired you, shocked you or moved you in some way?
ER: I will give you a funny answer and then a serious one. First off, people eat too many baked beans here.
TML: Baked beans? I remember a lot of peas...
ER: I am not used to seeing baked beans put on baked potatoes and then tuna from a can on top of that. ... Also baked beans on pizza? OK, so more seriously, I have learned a lot about time management. Lodging is so expensive here that I cannot afford a studio. The apartment we live in is small. This has made my art practice change a lot. I have to force myself to concentrate while working all day in the same place I go to bed at night. It can be very tempting to cue up YouTube or do “research.” This has been a real struggle, so I have had to balance myself between working as best I can at home and exploring the city.
I never thought it could be so hard to have more free time to paint. That has been the crux of this experience for me. There has not been any seminal experience besides this constant tension.
Artistically, I have had moments of astonishment in front of Francis Bacon paintings at Tate Britain and Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding.” I have also been extremely disappointed by a Peter Doig retrospective up now at Tate Modern. He is very respected internationally, but I felt like his paintings had no backbone or worse that they were aping something extremely personal. He is prolific and well respected, but the work was a letdown for me.
TLM: It’s always frustrating to see the work of someone who is so well known, and discover that it is really just lukewarm. It can be either encouraging — “well, if he can make it, I certainly can” — or very daunting — “the art world is just capricious, is nothing based on quality anymore?” Describe a typical day for you there. What is the balance between studio time and exploring time? Do you find yourself exploring the city alone most of the time while Catherine is at work, or do you save that for when you can do it together?
ER: Good question. Catherine and I try to get up at 6:50 most mornings. This gives us time to have breakfast together and then go to the gym before she heads to work. Then I check my e-mail and get set up to paint. Right now I am painting a small corner of the window separating our bedroom and living room. The painting is very simple. Just a few rectangles, really, so the pressure is great to find subtlety.
I paint from 9 (a.m.) to about 4 (p.m.) many days. Then I go get a tea and read at a coffee shop near my apartment. Around 5:30 I start dinner so Catherine and I can eat when she gets back.
On the weekends we get up almost at the same time as the weekdays, but we spend the whole day out many times. So I do take one or two weekdays and explore on my own, especially looking at art, but we tend to discover the city together on weekends.
TLM: Have you taken any weekend trips to other parts of Great Britain?
ER: Actually, no, it has been a bit dreary weather-wise here, so we have set our sights on bigger trips. We went to Switzerland for Christmas, which was great. Zurich was such a quiet and well-made city. Paris is this weekend, and then we are going to Morocco in a couple weeks. We have had friends from the States stay with us a few times, though.
TLM: It’s so easy to travel anywhere over there. Is the Morocco trip after Catherine finishes her co-op? When are you returning to Cincinnati?
ER: We are going to Morocco before we get back to the States. Catherine has more than two weeks of vacation even as a six-month intern. Things are a little different over here in that way. We get back to the States March 23.
TLM: Nice. I wish U.S. employers realized the importance of vacation time.
ER: Yeah. Oh, I just thought of the most interesting artistic experience I had. I saw a video piece by Nan Goldin that was absolutely fantastic. She has done a series in the past called “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” It focuses on photo documentation of couples. The piece I saw was a slide show of bits of this larger work. It was accompanied by a piece of music in which Bjork sang about the passion of Christ.
It was uncomfortable because you were watching people who were in love but perhaps suffering from illness or other circumstances. Coupled with religious music it induced a certain quality of intimacy that was both universal and personal. Damn. Great piece.
TLM: I know what Goldin piece you're talking about. The CAC had an exhibition called Slide Show a while back, and I think excerpts from that series were in it. Anyway, it sounds like you are currently very inspired by issues of intimacy, relationships and domesticity based on your current work and the future projects you have planned. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How has your experience as a newly engaged couple suddenly living together in a foreign country influenced that? Even the small, white paintings seem to be about intimacy. Very intimate, personal paintings.
ER: As an artist I am constantly trying to tell it like it is for me. The “for me” part is the make or break in any work, it seems. I have always believed that the act of creating has the ability to communicate something new and important. My recent paintings of white objects are all about intimacy. They are about me fumbling around in a new situation, with limited resources and a lot of new responsibility. The paintings show things that I have decided to examine. I am in a sense creating a set of things to “hold on to” even when I feel a little overwhelmed sometimes here.
I have become less afraid to speak directly about my life and feelings while I have been here. I think being in love does that. You are more vulnerable. I want my work to reflect my experiences of sexuality and communication, faith and lack of belief in myself at times. In short I desperately want to be truthful in my work, and it is very hard.
The pieces you mentioned are some ideas I have to diversify my working methods and collaborate with Catherine. I will describe one of them. I am interested in mattresses as multifaceted motifs. I would like to find an old used mattress and spend a long time painting it life-size from observation. This would be one half of the piece. It might be entitled “Experience” or “Living.” The other half will be a brand new mattress still in its wrapper. I will cut a whole in the wrapper and project a film that Catherine has made onto the fabric of the mattress. She takes a lot of footage of things that are textural and barely narrative. She has made some beautiful works showing grass and plants moving almost imperceptively in the wind. I think this video might be a good metaphor for nascent sexuality. So ... the video/mattress will be mounted on the wall like a painting, and the painting of the old mattress will lean up against the wall emphasizing its object-hood. Sounds zany, and I am sure it will change.
It is really hard to combine two pieces into one complete statement. This is one of a few pieces I am ready to start on. I also have been making small and minimal paintings of bits of space and objects, and I feel like those are just beginning. And, of course, I will be working on commissioned portraits and also more figurative type paintings, although I am sure they will relate directly to my recent experiences here and my relationship with Catherine.
TML: You just received a $12,500 Elizabeth Greenshields grant. Did that change the way you think about painting? I mean, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how visual art is different from all the other arts. It is very commodity oriented. You paint and make an object, and hope the object sells. With theater and music, artists actually get paid for their performances. The Greenshields grant, in a way, is paying you to just engage in the activity of painting. How has that changed things for you?
ER: Very interesting. It has made it harder and easier. It has made it easier to dream. I can think up all kinds of work I am going to do and know that I have a little less pressure to make things that look just like what I have always made. I think that is what grants do very well. They allow an artist potentially un-judged time to create work that is new and a little uncomfortable. They invest in growing pains, as it were. It is harder, though, because with change comes indecision and dead-ends and challenge. Of course, these must be met head on with ironclad belief and passion.
TLM: So you mean you are able to think more about the creative process, and invention and experimentation, and less about making things that will sell?
ER: In the end I am only making the work because I feel like I need to do what I am meant to do. I guess you are right a little bit but, boy, that can be embarrassing to admit.
TLM: Right, I didn't mean you were painting only to sell. I hope you knew what I meant —less pressure to sell.
ER: I know.
TLM: Hey, artists have to make a living. That's the harsh reality!
ER: I always believe that when I make work it is infused with communication or intimacy. For whatever reason someone buys it, I am joyful for them to have it. It is all about spreading the work as much as possible, really, and trying to make a living at the same time.
There is a defeatist attitude among young artists who are taught to starve and be antisocial. The truth of the matter is, many artists who make it only make it because they work hard enough and are tenacious enough to make it. Defeat is not an answer.
TLM: Hard work, tenacity and not fearing failure.
ER: You can’t fear failure and you have to believe in yourself.
TLM: So, art aside, what is the first thing you want to do when you return?
ER: I want to play some mean basketball at the UC rec center and see my family. I also cannot wait to get back to a large studio with good tools!