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Speaking Directly

October 13, 2018
sculpture series failure of communication
The Failure of Communication, 2012-18


Speaking directly

In conversation and art it’s often difficult to say what you mean. We muddle through our words and leave the back door open so that rogue interpretations can slip in. We fear treading into the waters of deep sincerity because we might drown in an excess of emotion. As an artist, there is this constant question of how deep to go, how much vulnerability to reveal, how much truth to uncover.

Recently, as I was transferring slides of old work into digital images, I had a fresh look at the art I created during a formative period—the time during and after grad school. Although I majored in sculpture, I was doing a lot of wildly expressive paintings on paper in addition to the requisite three- dimensional work. There was no shortage of emotional outflow in these images and a deliberate loosening of control over the medium. I used anything at hand; house paint, roofing tar, mud, and aluminum roof coat were typical. Many, in reverence to Ad Reinhart, pushed the boundaries of perceivable darkness. Some suggested impossibly dynamic sculptures. I worked on large sheets of acid-free kraft paper that a friend procured for me from the Cornell map library and did several each week.

Despite the prodigious outflow and boldness of the work, I was still muttering my way through expression. I didn’t know how or what I wanted to say. Like the loud drunk at a party, people were noticing me, but the substance of my expression was completely lost to all but my closest friends.

The art world is a place where fear of rejection, being a stranger to success, and expectations from others all steer us away from being honest in our work. Some artists appropriate styles and techniques based on popularity while others safely avoid introspection by embracing a practice that delves solely into formalist aesthetics or the concerns of representation. Sometimes I enjoy the process of working simply, taking all of my cues from the subject, such as when I do plein-air watercolors or figure drawings. Because these are not fettered with meaning, there is almost a Catholic guilt to how easy it is to make these.

Mostly, the work I am doing now, such as the recent photo-documentation of landscape interventions, has conceptual undertones and a specific message which might be tied to the history of a site or some other academic inquiry. I try to control the interpretation by establishing clear contexts which I elucidate in my statements and titles and reinforce by presenting the work as a series. The work is not wildly expressive like those older paintings, but based on ideas that originate outside of myself. The meaning is still a moving target and I do inject a bit self- reflection into the image making. The wild thrashing in my early work, like the way we all danced to Punk Rock bands, was a way to resist my own vulnerability; now, I’ve come to embrace my weaknesses and let it be an undercurrent in my work. The work is an open- case investigation that delves into the mysteries of our existence. As for answers, I’m open to suggestion; the goal is really to start a conversation, which is the first step to being understood.


untitled 1986 copy

Mixed media drawing 1985

CAUGHT IN A WAVE 1989? copy
Drawing done at Cornell, 1986
IMG_4597 copy

Black painting, 1987

IMG_4569 copy

Graphite and paint on paper, 1987

IMG_1882 copy

Ink and paint on Kraft paper

IMG_1840 copy

Mixed media drawing 1986

documentation of work done while a resident at PLAYA
park preserve   boundary project

The Glacier’s Receding 2015

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  1. Thanks for this Rob. I love the first paragraph – it’s a good observation of the difficulties of being honest and brave in direct conversation as well as in art. Why are we so afraid? It’s not hard to find the answer to that, but we also deny ourselves the opportunity to explore life together.

  2. Harry permalink

    I remember well the mixed media drawings from the mid ’80s. I always enjoyed those works. Nice to see them again. Harry

    • And I love that portrait photo you took of me back then-my with my arms above my head mimicking the painting- it is hanging next to “Replacing the view With one More Familiar”. It perfectly captured the expression of a young artist trying to express himself!

  3. Kim, When I wrote this, you are one those artist that I was thinking of who is brave and not afraid to say what they mean. Your recent show is a prime example! Thanks for reading.

  4. These pieces are so spectacular Rob!! Remember being young and unafraid? Well just being an artist is to be unafraid, but I think about my work in PSA and how embarrasingly revealing it was… especially to me! Now I want to have control and mastery over the work, to categorize it and believe everything I have done has led me to some Important dicovery where I fully locate myself in the universe. But the truth is, there is no great discovery, just little discoveries along the way. Little moments of freshness. Bravery takes on different form. It is amazing to be an artist in the river of artists through time able to express so deeply without words the thrills and mysteries of being alive. Keep pushing on my dear friend! Keep trusting the process. Xx. Sim

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